“To Each His Own”

Suum cuique for you Latin fans out there. It’s absolutely fascinating to me how some people get obsessively caught up in certain interests and hobbies while at the exact same time other people view those same interests and hobbies with complete disengagement and disinterest. It’s easy to understand why few people are drawn to niche and fetish groups who unite in their shared love for unique and obscure interests, but it’s always been more interesting to watch those with an eccentric disposition who aren’t drawn towards the trendy and popular more of the day. With that in mind, here is my list of things that I just don’t get (and I’m sure to get judged since some of these things are all-but-sacred parts of our contemporary culture):

  • Coffee (Let’s just go ahead and throw out that cultural taboo – yeah, I don’t like coffee – at all)
  • Cats (I mean, what’s the point!?)
  • Iphones (For something that’s so “unique” – there sure are a lot of lemmings)
  • Light beer (I’ll just have water, thank you)
  • Country music (It has it’s moments, but they are becoming rare)
  • Jay Z (Rap isn’t really written for me, but I still get a lot of it, just not his)
  • Minivans (conversion vans are what mini vans strive to be, but we will not settle)
  • Burger King (They’re fine, I just have never said, “Hey, let’s go to Burger King. Not one time in my entire life)
  • Seinfeld (Losing fans here, but I just don’t get that whiny comedy)
  • Jewelry (sorry Mary Beth)
  • Facebook stories (Nice try, but Snapchat got there first and they know what they’re doing)
  • Cruises (Never been, no desire)
  • Diet pop/soda/cola (What a waste of natural resources)
  • Sugar free . . . anything (If it’s supposed to be there, don’t try to pretend you can take it out and it will all be OK)
  • Cheerleaders (They just get in the way of my view of the game)
  • Naps (Way too much to do than to sleep during the day)
  • Mustaches (Beards good; mustaches too pornstarish)
  • Disney World (The obsession of this place may be my #1 don’t get it)
  • Yellow lights (I mean I know why they are there, but man they are annoying)
  • Holy water (I respect many aspects of traditions outside my own, but this is one that I just don’t get)
  • Moles (on your skin – I have a lot of them, and I don’t get them)
  • Mormons (no judging . . . just don’t get you)
  • Miley Cyrus (she seems to have every annoying trait of any girl I’ve ever met wrapped up into one person)
  • Peas (taste fine, but I will never get the mushy texture  gross)
  • Brick houses (never lived in one, no desire to live in one)
  • Diets (I’m all for eating better, but the diet industrial complex is predatory)
  • Cigarettes (I understand smoking weed more than I get cigarettes)
  • Dallas Cowboys (They are so irrelevant, and yet still so much attention)
  • Professional wrestling (No thanks)
  • Beans (That texture again)
  • Kevin Hart (The unfunniest comedian ever)
  • Guns (Maybe the hardest two people to get to understand each other are people who love guns and people who don’t get them)
  • Mid Octane gas (doesn’t everyone either burn the cheap stuff or the expensive stuff?)

There are plenty others . . . but that’s a start.

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#metoo and the Bible

Our theme at Alum Creek for 2018 is “This is Us.” At the end of 2017, we gathered hundreds of pictures of the people who make up our church and through the website Picture Mosaics, we created this image of our stained glass windows. We had a large 3′ x 4′ canvas printed that we will display throughout the year as a vivid reminder of who we are.

I love the symbolism of all of these pictures bleeding into the larger image that represents our church (the stained glass hangs in the center of our sanctuary as a focal point). We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and this image illustrates our small role in a larger picture. In conjunction with this theme, every Sunday in 2018 our sermon focuses on a different character from the Bible: 52 different individuals highlighting the mosaic of people who make up the story of Scripture. It was difficult to narrow the studies down to only 52, but I did my best to select a group of diverse men and women from the Old and New Testaments who help highlight many diverse voices that are a part of Gods’ kingdom. With such a diverse cloud of witnesses, it is easy to find ourselves voices that are sympathetic to our own.

As I was compiling our list of studies for 2018 at the end of last year, the number of women outing male predators, offenders, and criminals had grown from a steady trickle to an outright avalanche. Accusations rained down on some of the most powerful and successful men in Hollywood and Washington sparking a movement that coalesced under the hashtag “metoo” and more recently “time’sup.” From Weinstein to Spacey and from Keillor to Franken, accusations have ranged from the inappropriate and uncomfortable to the violent, manipulative, and outright criminal.

The Bible has more stories than we’d like to admit that victimize (the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19), ignore (Bathsheba), and undermine (1 Timothy 2:11-15) the voice and standing of women. Any honest study of the people in the Bible must confront these difficult stories.

At the end of the 2017, I settled on the 52 different people we would study and matched each of the 52 names with a Sunday. It just so happens (call it the Holy Spirit; call it coincidence), our character study yesterday was Tamar. There are actually two different Tamars in the Bible, and they both are the victims of sexual crimes. As I prepared for yesterday’s sermon with Larry Nassar’s trial unfolding as a background soundtrack, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a more timely topic. I attempted to weave the stories of the two Tamars with those of Larry Nassar and Andy Savage (a Memphis, megachurch pastor who recently was forced to deal with a skeleton from his closet.) It was not an easy message to try and orchestrate and it’s not as if a bow can be tied on a neatly wrapped up conclusion. Instead, I tried to live in the tension and get out of the way and listen to the victims that are so often ignored. The manuscript is below if you are interested in reading it.

Tamar and Tamar

January 28, 2018 (preached at Alum Creek Church)

As the idea for this year’s theme came to me back at the end of last year, I spent several days compiling a list of the characters that we would study this year in our sermons. One of the things that really drew me to this overview was that our stories would come right out of the Bible and we would cover all kinds of topics. “This is us” is the glue that holds this year together, and, like those of us in this room, God’s kingdom is a diversity of people with all with kinds of stories to tell. I came up with about 100 different people we could study, and many of them would have similar stories to tell, so as I weeded down the number to 52, I tried to provide the most diverse group of characters I could.

As we go through the year there will be a few mini-themes – for instance, during Lent we’ll consider several different people who have a story to tell from the Passion of the Christ, and we’ll study Esther on Mother’s Day and Jacob on Father’s Day, but generally speaking there was a lot of randomness as to when each particular person fell.

As sexual misconduct, abuse, and even violence against women was beginning to make major news as national figures like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement or trend began to take shape and it felt like something we should talk about. As a matter of fact, there were many stories of women in the Bible who could say #metoo. Their voices are crucial to the Bible’s story and it just so happened that one of those stories fell today. I had no idea, when I determined the dates of these studies that this week would be the week of Larry Nassar’s trial and sentencing. This couldn’t be a more timely message from the Bible, but I have to warn you, it won’t be pleasant.

This morning I am going to try to get a lot said in our time together. As I set out to really tackle this story this week, my passion and conviction grew stronger and stronger. I began with an appreciation that we had stumbled upon a relevant topic and figured many of you would be interested in listening, but I ended with a broken heart and a conviction that this message is long overdue in our church.

One of the challenges that we face in this day and age, and it seems to get more difficult as the years pass, is we have a tendency to allow the world of the media, politics, academia, and social media to determine the rules and language of our discussions. If we are honest, many of us – maybe all of us – have allowed the media and our social media circles to provide the framework by which we think through and discuss important matters. We start with the news, our favorite talk show personality, a trendy hash tag, some article we saw on Facebook, or other media outlet, then sprinkle on a Bible verse or some quasi-Christian perspective to try and justify our voice on controversial matters.

I believe that God calls us to something much more radical than that. Jesus wasn’t calling his people to separate their “personal spiritual lives” from their lives of activism and action. A faith in Jesus Christ is one that mandates an awareness and calls our voice to social concerns. How do we address trendy and timely social matters without getting sucked into the debates, the pandering, and the fickleness of it all? I believe it is through knowing the story! When we immerse ourselves fully in the biblical text, it’s amazing how relevant that we will find it to be! And we are going to see that from two stories in the Bible this morning.

Today we study the story of Tamar, but the first thing that you need to know is that there are two Tamars in the Bible and each of them have a #metoo story to tell. We are going to hear from them both this morning.

We are going to talk about the second Tamar first – just to confuse you! – she was the daughter of David and her story is told in 2 Samuel 13. The scene is set for us right out of the gate, and we can all paint the picture clearly with our mind’s eye. This is a story that is familiar to us all – it’s one that has been told way too often.

Tamar was Absalom’s sister and she was beautiful, and their brother Amnon was smitten with her. There is some ambiguity here as to whether Amnon was Tamar’s half-brother or full brother (the way the text is written, they are most often seen as half-siblings), but that gets us away from the story. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar. She was so beautiful he couldn’t think of anything else. The text says that “he was so obsessed with her he became ill.”

I want to make this very clear as we set out to study this story, Amnon is a predator. It may be his sister, but as I read the story, notice how eerily familiar the story sounds.

2 Samuel 13:1-20

At several points in this story, we see the work of a predator.

First, there was the manipulation by Amnon to make his friend feel sorry for him. “What’s your problem?” he asks. Predators, somehow, have a tendency to make themselves out to be the victims of their own poor choices. He was just hung up on this young women’s beauty? Really? There even seems to be an inherent belief here where Amnon is showing that “he can’t help himself.” How often do we hear that from predators?

Amnon displays the manipulation of language that is common in predators. He tells Jonadab that he’s in love with “Absalom’s sister” – distancing himself from her. However, when she is in his presence, he tries to appeal to her care and concern by referring to her simply as “sister.”

He invokes pity and plays off the good intentions of his sister. She has genuine concern for him, and he uses that against her. He goes through this long process of creating the perfect setting by which to take advantage of her, sending everyone out of his room and being left one-on-one with the object of his obsession.

Tamar protests. At least marry her – she pleads. There’s disagreement about whether this would have been a legitimate option anyway since they were related, but David had been known to bend the law, so who knows? She’s trying to come up with any kind of excuse or alternative she can because she is threatened and she sees where this is going. But it turns out he wasn’t sick at all, and he jumped at her and overpowered her and raped her. And then he casts her aside. For as much as he loved her, now he hated her even more. Maybe it was a guilty conscience, but mostly it was the selfish disappointment of finally taking what he wanted. While Tamar . . . we’re told that she lives as a desolate woman.

What an unsettling story. Everything about it makes me feel dirty and want to think happy thoughts to try and rid my mind from it.

In many ways it’s the story of Larry Nassar. Some sick person with a twisted view of sex and a selfish drive to use his situation to take whatever he wants and prey upon the vulnerable and well-intentioned. And just like Larry Nassar was protected at different levels by the institutions he served, Tamar receives no justice. The text goes on to say that when King David heard about what happened he was very angry . . . but we get no sense that he did anything about it. As a matter of fact . . . as the story unfolds in 2 Samuel, their brother Absalom takes revenge into his own hands and kills Amnon. Perhaps what may be the most shocking of all parts of the story, we are told that David mourned many days for his son Amnon. And while we may not expect him to rejoice over the death of his son, we are left with that lingering thought, “What about Tamar?”  David was angry about the rape, but did he ever mourn for Tamar? The absence of such a sentiment speaks volumes. No further mention is made of her and we are left with the impression that she never gets over it – living in desolation – like so many victims kicked to the side of the curb and forgotten.

The other story of the other Tamar is told in Genesis 38. The circumstances surrounding that story are different, but the same. I’ll do my best to summarize this story without reading through it entirely. The story is really the story of Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan, and Sheilah and the plot revolves around the ancient practice of levirate marriage. If a husband dies before providing an heir to help care for his wife, the husband’s brother would (in a way) inherit the widow and would be responsible for providing an heir. It’s an ancient practice that is a tradition in many parts of the world, and was practiced at this time (as hard as it might be for us to wrap our heads around it).

We are told that the eldest brother, Er, married Tamar, but he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and was put to death. Thus, Onan is left to provide an heir for Tamar, but (in one of the more sexually explicit passages in the Bible) he had sex with her but released his semen on the ground, so as not to get her pregnant. He was subsequently put to death because that was evil in the sight of the Lord. (We could spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out all of this since it seems so strange to us, but we’re not going to take the time to unpack that story now).

By this point, Judah is heartbroken because he has lost his two oldest sons and only his youngest is left and he’s worried about losing him too. Therefore, Judah sends Tamar away until Sheilah is older, and he tells her they will send for her when his son is older. From the beginning of that story, we hold out very little hope that Judah actually has the intention of ever giving Sheilah to Tamar and he doesn’t.

Years later, Tamar gets word that Judah is coming to the town she has been staying, pretends to be a prostitute, and solicits Judah. Judah accepts, and as payment he promises to send her a young goat from his flock. He allowed her to keep his staff and his seal at collateral. When the goat was sent back for payment, the prostitute was nowhere to be found, and so the matter was forgotten (apparently, Judah thought he got a free night with a prostitute).

Tamar becomes pregnant and word gets around after a few months when she can no longer hide it. Judah . . . of all people . . . Judah is outraged and suggests she be put to death as an adulterer. Tamar wisely uses the staff and seal to prove that it was Judah who had had sex with her. The end of the story is one of the more dramatic in the Bible:

Genesis 38: 24-26

 

To fully understand this story, you have to consider the context. It is told directly before the story about Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. There is an intentional stark contrast between the actions of two of Israel’s sons – Joseph and Judah. But just as with the other Tamar story, we see again the trappings of what the whole #metoo movement is bringing to light.

If we see Larry Nassar in Amnon, I wonder if we don’t equally see Andy Savage in Judah. If you aren’t familiar with the story of Andy Savage, it broke during the first week of the year. Savage is the teaching pastor at a mega-church in Memphis, TN. During a service on January 7, he read a statement when he confessed a “sexual incident” that happened when he was the youth pastor for a church in Texas. As he was driving a 17 year old teenager home from church, he drove past her house, into a secluded wooded spot, groped her breasts, and made her perform oral sex on him. Then he told her to never tell anyone – that she needed to take it to her grave.[1]

Much like Amnon, Savage knows the manipulative power of words, and as he read his statement used many slight variations to minimize his assault.[2] He was “in college” (although he was in college, he was 23 – she was 17); “over 20 years ago” – it was 20 years almost to the day; it was a “sexual incident” – he never mentions oral sex or that he groped her breasts; he says he “resigned from ministry” – though the congregation threw him a going away party; he says he “accepted full responsibility for his actions” – though it does not appear he nor the congregation ever reported the incident to police for the crime that it was. This story highlights breakdowns in responsibility and accountability. He went on to work as a pastor of young adults at a church in Memphis and you wonder if it was ever told to them.

This story reeks of the deception and dysfunction of these two biblical accounts. As someone who has been in personal and one-on-one situations with girls my entire ministry, when I read this story it made my stomach wrench. This was too close to home. And the Nassar case has reminded us of just how powerful these positions of power can be.

This is a difficult sermon to wrap up. I don’t know how these stories hit you. You could be a man who needs to repent of the way you treat or think about women. You could be a man who has skeletons in your closet that need to be dealt with. You may be a woman who hears these stories and knows the hurt they bring more intimately than you’ve ever told anyone. You may be a woman who hasn’t had such heinous acts done to you, but you know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable and objectified.

There are lessons here for us all, and I just don’t have time to give any of them justice, so I will leave you with these.

1 – You are the loved and cherished child of God. No one can take that away from you.

2 – You have been created with dignity and filled with meaning, regardless of your gender.

3 – God desires harmony and mutual respect between all people – and calls his people to be examples.

Mostly, I just wanted to get out of the way this morning. I am far from perfect, but this is a topic that (and I am grateful to say) has not landed close to home. I empathize as much as I can, but it is impossible to fully comprehend. Towards that end, I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the very first woman who spoke out against Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults. She was the first one who bring accusations forth paving the way for over 100 others, and she was also the final victim to read a prepared statement at the trial. Her words are a perfect closing to this morning. Her name is Rachael Denhollander. The boldness and conviction it must have taken to stand face to face with this man, and to utter these words of truth and grace are beyond my ability to understand. This is what the Gospel looks like. [You can view the entirety of her remarks here. We played the excerpt below which comes around the 27:08-29:02]

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

[1] Her story originally appeared here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/01/05/i-thought-he-was-taking-me-for-ice-cream-one-womans-metoo-story-of-molestation-by-her-former-youth-pastor-andy-savage/

[2] Full service was broadcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyKdluNR95I

2018

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In my journey through the works of Stephen King, I began 2018 by reading his critically acclaimed On Writing, and am about half way through Secret Window: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing. Both books were published in 2000, several years after his debut nonfiction work Danse Macabre – which is more of an homage to science fiction and popular culture than to writing in general. (Secret Window actually includes a lengthy essay from Danse Macabre.)

Throughout my life, I have spent the vast majority of my time reading nonfiction – probably to a clip of 80/20. Graduate school has a tendency to produce in its students an admiration for dense prose and actual enjoyment of extended treatises. Like many students, however, I realized a few years ago that I was approaching my breaking point with nonfiction. Those extended treatises were starting to feel stale and the dense prose was becoming mind-numbingly lifeless and even uninteresting. It became clear that I needed a break, and the only author of fiction who had ever had any success in courting me away from nonfiction was Stephen King.

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About three years ago I began reading Carrie, his first novel, and have been reading his published novels and short story collections in the chronological order of publication – rereading the ones I had already read. It’s been a slow and leisurely stroll (I think I’ve got about 30 down – and about that many to go – dude is a prolific writer!), but I have determined to pick up the pace entering this year, and plan to make a real effort to get the majority of his remaining books knocked out. [Dreamcatcher, published in 2001 is up next, in case you were wondering.]

I began the journey with some grandiose idea of tracking King’s use of  Christian themes throughout his stories, but I realized pretty quickly that I just wanted something to read and enjoy! I wanted to leave my theologian’s hat on my nightstand and just read his well-crafted and engrossing stories. For the most part, that is what I have done. What a masterful and creative storyteller he is. Reading his books on writing, however, has made me want to pause and reflect on his perspective of the craft of writing. Leave it to nonfiction to spur my critical capacities back into action.

King has provided me a much needed respite from nonfiction (I still read several

nonfiction books a year, but over the past three have spent more time in his fiction), but he has also inspired me to write more. What I have learned of myself over the past decade is that I truly enjoy writing. English was always my worst subject in school, and I cut every corner I could in those classes so it’s taken me awhile to discover this about myself.

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I find myself wanting to write more often and become more creative in doing so. Despite taking countless high school, college, and graduate classes across the academic spectrum, I never found myself in a creative writing class. While tiny feelings of lament over this neglect make themselves known, Stephen King redeems me as he doesn’t have much use for those classes anyway!

There are many ways in which I resonate with Stephen King and plan to work on an article entitled something like, “If Stephen King were a preacher.” One of the things I have really taken to heart in working through his books on writing is that I need to write more. He makes the obvious, yet profound observation more than once: writers write. They can’t help it. One of the most admirable things about him is that he says he writes because he has to – not because of the money or success. He has stories to tell. I’m not sure I have stories to tell [though King has made me think that maybe I do have at least one story to tell ] but I do feel as though I have things that need to be said.

As a minister I do write often. I write a sermon every week. I write bulletin articles and class notes, weddings, funerals, seminars and workshops. I love what I do and I love that I have these outlets for writing . I have even written a book which should be coming out later this year (nonfiction, of course). There are limitations in each of these outlets, but one of the reasons I keep this blog is to encourage me to play with my writing styles,  formats, themes, and subjects.

My hope is that I can spend some time in the coming weeks writing. Stephen King has helped me realize that one of the most important things I need to do in my desire to write more is to . . . well, write more. As obvious as that sounds, most people realize it’s not that easy. It takes time, energy, creativity, and commitment. Amidst all the other responsibilities vying for my time, writing is not for the faint of heart. I hope to have time to let writing flow profusely from my fingertips and imagination in the coming weeks. That’s the real draw of writing for me – probably for most writers I guess. That I can take something in my mind, type out words in some semblance of order and coherence, another person can read those words, formulate ideas in their own minds, and have a kind of almost mystical connection with the ideas that were in my head. That’s another way of saying this space may produce writings that are long, rambling, and incoherent (like my sermons – say some of my parishioners, ha ha), but that’s OK. This will be my playground for awhile – so let’s see what I can get into, and hopefully some of you may find it worth your time to read what I’ve got to say.

Some Musings on Faith, Flag, and Football (The Power of Symbols)

[This post is part of an ongoing series – you can access first post here.]

Several years ago we were fortunate enough to have a family from our church host an exchange student from Paris. I have many fond memories from her time with us, but there was one particular episode that I have never been able to forget. During one week in the summer, we attended a Christian camp and, as was the tradition each morning, the entire camp gathered around the flagpole and recited the pledge of the allegiance as the flag was raised. Our friend from France leaned over to me a

nd asked, “Why do you guys worship your flag?”

I’m sure my patriotic, Christian friends would be quick to dispel her confusion and assure her we do not worship the flag, but rather honor it and that for which it stands (isn’t that part of the pledge?) A few years ago, I ran across an essay by David Scotchmer entitled “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis.”[1] It helped inspire an article I wrote which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly journal back in 2010, and has helped me sift through the meaning and power of symbols. One of the early points that Scotchmer makes is, “One of the failures of the contemporary church is its inability to see its own captivity to the rules and norms of Western society.”[2] He focuses on the consumer-oriented approach many churches were having (and continue to have) in addressing spiritual needs, but his comment is just as revealing when applied to politically-infused debates like the one currently raging regarding the national anthem at sports venues.

As I’ve read articles and witnessed the responses by Christians to this entire discussion it is clear to me that for the vast majority of Christians offering their opinions, they are allowing the socio-political system of  the Unites States to frame their response. The responses tend to be binary: the athletes are using their platform to speak out against police brutality and social injustices rooted in racism OR the athletes are speaking out of turn and are providing an unnecessary distraction from actions/discussions that are more likely to provoke healthy dialogue and, hopefully, change. While the binary responses don’t fall definitively down party lines, the vast majority do.

To me, this whole discussion provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power and place of symbols. Christians in the United States have an easy time pointing out the propagandizing emphasis in nations like China and North Korea, but remain mostly oblivious to the way in which it works in our own country. Go to nearly any toy story in our country and you’ll find plastic versions of fighter jets, tanks, and army men.

A few years ago while we were on spring break, my family went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. I was appalled during our time there to see children playing on old, emptied bomb shells. It was like a playground.

One could wonder if the abundance of red, white, and blue in the US is visible from space. Consider our superheroes and cartoons: Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman – all dressed in red, white, and blue; Superman fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Too easily do we dismiss these kinds of symbols as harmless and innocent. Make no mistake, the nation has a vested interest in indoctrinating its citizens to the power of its military and the righteousness of its cause. From a humanistic perspective, we can argue this away as a necessary evil of the nation-state, but as Christians called to a different citizenship – a different kingdom – we must be cautious to fall under their persuasive powers.

This brings us back to the vested interested the United States has in the patriotic hubbub that precedes most professional sporting events. Scotchmer states that “symbols embody the meaning of culture and serve as vehicles and repositories of meaning. Symbols express a worldview and join it to an ethos in ways that make it both meaningful and coherent.”[3] That’s why there is such unrest when someone challenges a nation’s symbols – they are calling into question the worldview and the presupposed meaning and order of the said culture.

Those who argue that the protesters have chosen a poor venue for their protest and/or should devote their time to (what they see as) civil discourse are assigning the symbol of the national anthem and the flag as a matter of core identity (which is often

wrapped up in the sport itself – think baseball as the national pastime and football as America’s game – these too function as symbols). Those who kneel or tweet #ikneel desire to bring attention to what they view as the insufficiency of the symbol. For some, the symbol doesn’t mean to them what it means to the other side, and for others, the symbol does mean that, but the manifestation of that symbol is sorely lacking.

Another quote from Scotchmer is helpful here, “Symbols provide powerful models of reality, as well as models for it, by giving meaning – that is, objective, conceptual form – to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping that reality to themselves. How people spend their time, money, and energy [in today’s world we might add how they spend their time on social media] reveals dramatically where their loyalties lie and which symbols they choose to preserve and promote.”[4] Which brings me to the point I want to make in this post.

I wrote in the introduction to this series of articles, “As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news

radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States.” In my opinion, arguing about kneeling or not kneeling is a distraction from the bigger problem in Christianity in the United States. This has put on display just how infested the US church is with American patriotism. We may give lip service to the church’s presence in the rest of the world, but episodes like this reveal the true scope of the disease.

Contrary to the militaristic symbols of power and might regularly put on display by the US government, the Bible is rife with symbols of its own. The Bible declares that the eternal destiny of the world was brought about by the symbol of a lamb that looked as though it had been slaughtered. Rome is depicted through the Bible with its own symbols of power and might (dragons and beasts), but they are always undone by a meek and mild Savior.

Regardless of your opinion regarding why the kneeling protests are taking place, you should be able to at least acknowledge peaceful kneeling during a nation’s anthem is not an affront against our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, this needs to be said: Honoring a nation’s anthem is not the business of Christians. As aliens and strangers, that’s just not our battle, so those who are quick to argue against those who are protesting should be careful in considering what exactly it is they are calling for. We are often told about those “brave soldiers who have given their life for the stars and stripes and our respect is rooted in them” but as Christians we must be mindful of the thousands around the world who have been murdered by the bombs those brave soldiers dropped. And we must be careful in our justification of the United States as “better than the other nations” – it is a great nation, but it is still not our home! Tony Campolo famously said, “The United States may be the greatest Babylon in the history of the world – but it’s still Babylon!” The kingdom of God is bigger than this nation or any other, and so for us to align ourselves in support of any nation’s anthem puts us on pretty shaky ground theologically.

We are allowing ourselves to get sucked in and divided by arguments and discussions that just aren’t kingdom matters. Justice is – and if someone kneels for that reason, we should be pretty slow to cast judgment as Christians. If anything, the act of kneeling or protesting during a nation’s anthem could be one of the most Christian things a disciple can do! Truth be told, we need more of that, than less. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the same fervor wrought  by this issue applied to how communion is observed, the sacred assembly, and the reading of Scripture. Christians should be much more concerned with flippant attitudes during moments like these than getting wrapped up in defending the traditions of the national anthem at a sporting event.

I ended my article in Restoration Quarterly with the following anecdote from Robert Coles’ book: The Political Life of Children, and it seems to be a fitting way to conclude this article. He describes a twelve-year-old Hopi Indian boy who wrestled with his identity living amid a nation that was not his own.

The Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: Horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms . . . [He] will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him . . . They are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things – America.[5]

It’s about time for Christians in the United States to act like they are part of some larger scheme of things – the kingdom of God.

The next post will look at the challenging realities of living in the midst of a challenging and fallen world, particularly in matters like these.

                [1] David Scotchmer, “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 158-172, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

                [5] Robert Coles, The Political Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 47-48.

Some Musings of Faith, Flag, and Football (A History Lesson)

[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]

The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly NKOREA-SKOREA-MILITARY-ANNIVERSARYimpressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and  Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.

Progressive Field Indians Opening Day  My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown blue-angels-flyoverup in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?

Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.

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On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”

Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.[1]

Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.

Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be  more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25goshen.html

[Click here for Next Post in Series]

Some Musings on Flag, Faith, and Football

In the midst of an escalating international conflict with North Korea, the continuing political posturing regarding the future of health care in the United States, the aftermath of multiple devastating hurricanes, and a church shooting in Nashville, TN, Monday’s news headlines largely ignored all of that and instead are dominated by professional sports. During my commute to work this morning, yesterday’s NFL protests during the national anthem and comments made by President Trump dominated the talk on political radio as well as sports radio.

The media cacophony prompted by this weekend’s events initially dissuaded me from wanting to add to the obnoxious and relentless voices offering unsolicited opinions. As I listened to the radio on my way to the office this morning, however, I realized how uniquely positioned I am to offer my own opinion on this particular subject. My academic background, research interests, professional career, and experience as a high school football official all come to a nexus in this most recent national debate. My forthcoming book, Elite? A Christian Manifesto on Youth Sports in the United States analyzes sports from a socio-theological perspective that is often applied to the realm of politics. [I presented a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference at Lipscomb University back in 2013 that provides a synopsis if you are interested (“A Theological Inquiry into Sports’ Function in Culture.”)] As a Christian minister, I profess my allegiance to the kingdom of God and have renounced allegiance to all other kingdoms. For over a decade, I have spent Friday nights in the fall wearing white and black stripes to officiate high school football games. A few weeks ago, our game for this week was moved to Thursday so it could be televised. The contest is between two Columbus City schools comprised of mostly African American students and I’ve already begun wondering how this all might affect that game.

As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States. When controversies arise within politics, sports, or religion they touch on people’s most fervent passions and tend to elicit the most zealous of response, so to address an event that simultaneously touches on all three of these subjects makes this an ideological landmine. There are so many different layers to peel back and dissect, yet the Facebook age has preconditioned us to wanting to make our points through zingers communicated via witty memes, snarky gifs, and 140 character insights.

The breadth of issues related to this incident has prompted me to write a long response in which I will attempt to address, what I believe are some of the most important aspects. Because of its length, I have decided to make this into a two or three-part series and I will publish a new part each day beginning tomorrow morning. In this essay, I want to address what I see as some of the most important and pressing matters when it comes to the protest of kneeling during the national anthem before a football game or sporting event regarding racial injustices in the United States.

[See the first post in the series here.]

2016

For the 38th time in my life, I have witnessed one year giving way to another. As I find myself quickly approaching the time of life that is most often described as mid-life, I have come to appreciate the rhythmic nature of life. This past New Year’s Eve I must have asked Mary Beth four or five times, “Has it really been an entire year since we did this last time?” We are not the first to experience this speeding up of time that growing older perpetuates.

The calendar has turned, the time for reminiscing past, and wide open spaces await. Before marching too quickly ahead, however, I wish to ruminate for just a moment on some of the fonder moments of the previous year. 365 days ago (366 days to be exact – wasn’t last year a leap year?) I stood at the base of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, and hiked among the majestic Garden of the Gods.  In March we walked the grounds of The Hermitage in Nashville and were able to appreciate one of the best maintained Presidential homes in the United States. In the summer, we took our family on an unforgettable tour of the Northeast with stops at Niagara Falls, Cooperstown,  NY, and the eventual destination of what has become one of my favorite places in the world – Acadia National Park in Maine. Our kids loved camping under the stars, hiking the rugged ocean shoreline, and eating our lunch from the rocks atop Cadillac Mountain. On the way home, we stopped to explore New York City for one day, and our children were able to experience the extremes of our world: sleeping in a tent one night to riding on the subway the next.

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Mary Beth and I were incredibly blessed with the opportunity to spend two weeks at the end of the summer in Ireland, England, and France. It was our second trip to Europe, but this trip was even better as we got to spend the entire time with friends. I’m sure that Mary Beth will never forget spending her birthday in an Irish pub as the entire pub sang happy birthday to her. We hiked along the rocky coast near Howth. We walked the largest sand dune in Europe. We ate fresh oysters from the bay at Archechon after we swam. We watched a Parisian rugby game. We got to enjoy playing with our favorite French couples’ little girl. The memories will last a lifetime.

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When we returned to the States, we didn’t even have time to catch our breath as school had begun and the slow pace of our two-week break was overcome by the hyperdrive of sports schedules, work, and the responsibilities of home. Just as things began toward a tolerable pace, my favorite baseball team had an incredible run into the World Series. I went to four World Series games in 2016. Even as I write that I am having trouble believing that it really happened. The Series was all that sports is supposed to be – unspeakably fun and joyful but overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

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Of course there were so many parts of 2016 I left out. Seems like we had a baseball game, soccer practice, a dress rehearsal, or a softball game every night of the year. There were youth group trips and church camps, sermons preached, Bible classes taught, articles written, family events attended – it’s all rather overwhelming just how much is accomplished in 366 days. And in this world of capturing every picture, sound and video clip – every moment – how do we even have time to look back and revel in what was? Even now, I have not seen most of the pictures we took throughout our travels last year.

I read books in 2016. Clementine and I finally finished reading the Harry Potter series. What a testament to one woman’s creativity. I have kept on plodding through the works of Stephen King. He is helping me think more about the way I write. Mostly I envy his incredible vocabulary, vivid ability to tell stories, and uncanny way of inviting the reader into his world. If I could steal one person’s ability for myself . . .

I spent the better part of the first half of the year reading It for the first time – it ended up being timely as the crazy clown epidemic invaded the East at the end of 2016, and with the upcoming movie, I couldn’t be more exciting. King is at his best when he has time to develop a group of characters as he does in The Stand and It. Those two stories are head and shoulders his best (though I’ve many more to read!) 2017 will begin with my moving on to Needful Things – long one of my favorite novels. I have yet to read one of his stories that I just hate.

I read more fiction than nonfiction in 2016 – maybe for the first time in my life. That is largely because I read with my kids – Harry Potter, Clementine, and I go back quite a ways, but Cecilia jumped into the party with the Baudelaire children and Lemony Snicket – proving also to be timely with Netflix’s upcoming series. But not only the kids, I’m learning how much better I preach when I have been captivated by a story. Preachers are, after all, storytellers, so how better to learn to preach than to read stories?

I watched television and movies as well. As far as horror movies go, the Stitches movie on Netflix is right up my alley. Weird, gory, and hilarious. I remember squeezing that one in at some point and enjoyed it. Mary Beth and I spent our anniversary watching the new movie Manchester by the Sea. I have not watched a movie that was more raw and emotional than that one. It has one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in any movie embodying sorrow, pain, and desperation than maybe any I’ve ever seen. Really, really memorable. We got caught up on House of Cards over the break – still a very engaging drama about politics.

It is freeing to just write again. In the summer of 2016, I signed a contract with Wipf and Stock Publishers to turn my dissertation into a book under their Cascade Books imprint. I was just hitting my writing rhythm as the holidays picked up. As this year begins, I will be focused intently the first six months on completing this book project. I am excited for the opportunity, I believe passionately about my subject, and I hope it will continue to open doors for more people to talk about the all-important subject of sports and faith.

I hope to have the manuscript completed by June 1, and expect that the book will be published sometime in 2018. I will to move to the marketing side of things once the manuscript is complete, and that, hopefully, is going to include providing a lot more attention and effort to this blog.

As I continue writing I will need breaks from the book, and plan to use this blog in the coming months as a sounding board for some of what I’m working on in the book, but also to get far afield from the topic and give my mind a rest. I will plan to post more on the book in the next few days, as this entry has become a rather lengthy entry to start 2017.

 

A Tease . . .

I just can’t seem to find within me the discipline and routine of regularly maintaining this blog. I am on the precipice of another concerted attempt, so we’ll see how that goes. Facebook tends to me where I type out thoughts much more frequently, and the need for prolonged and complex thoughts I typically save for sermons, but, alas, I still feel a desire for this outlet as well.

So . . . more is coming. One way or another I will be writing more – somewhere – as I begin, in earnest, in October to write my book. In conjunction with the work on the book, I am also beginning to look at creating a website that will be full of content related to youth ministry and theology as it pertains to sports. There is much work being done in that area and I am glad to be part. More coming soon . . .

I have a few more weeks of the football season left (as an Ohio high school football official), and then I hope to really turn my attention to these creative outlets. More than anything, today, I just wanted to put something down. This blog is just about screeched to a halt and it is time to lube the joints, oil the wheels, and get this baby rolling again.

I already do so much work in sermons and classes that I’d like to begin to post some of those materials as well. Upon my last web redesign I created an outlet for those kinds of things. We’ll see if I can get those things updated soon. It is a work in progress. Welcome back to this blog . . .

Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

I almost never purchase books when they first come out – mainly because I’m cheap, but also because I have so many other things on my shelf to read that I figure by the time I get around to actually reading a book I buy, I could have bought it cheaper anyway.

Such is the case with the 2012 book by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon titled The Art of Neighboring.  I don’t remember when exactly I discovered this book, but I finally bought it last year (used on Amazon – I’m a total cheapskate) and finished it last week.  I’m not one for hyperbole, but I think I can actually say that this is the most valuable ministry book I’ve read for several years.  Nothing the authors say is particularly novel or earth-shattering, which is part of its brilliance.  Their entire message is rooted in the very simple and fundamental question: What if Jesus meant that we should love our actual neighbors?

The problem is, the authors point out in the beginning of the book, that hardly anyone seems to even know their neighbors.  They use the simple strategy of mapping out your house and the eight houses that are closest in proximity to your house, and ask the question how well do you know the people in those eight houses?  Do you even know their names?  Their families?  Their jobs?  Based on their experiences, the vast majority of people they’ve talked to can’t name their eight closes neighbors.  Most of their message can be summed up in the simple statement: Get to know your neighbors!

The whole idea for this “neighboring” movement was born  in Denver, Colorado where several local pastors were told by their mayor that most of the social ills of their community could be addressed if people simply learned to be good neighbors.  This realization prompted this group of pastors to work together and encourage their various churches to begin to intentionally get to know their neighbors.  The whole concept sounds so obvious that it seems a shame that such a book is necessary.  But it’s true. We’ve simply lost the ability to be good neighbors.

Our family has charted a similar path over the past 5 years to get know our neighbors, and we serve as a personal testimony for exactly the point this book sets out to make.  Too many Christians are too caught up in the bubbles of their church world that they often miss what is going on right under their noses.  I grew up in the country, so this whole neighborhood thing has taken me awhile to get used to.  I remember how strange it seemed to me when we bought our first house that my bedroom was less than 100 feet from my neighbor’s bedroom.  We slept less than 100 feet away from each other, but knew almost nothing about each other!

Pathak and Runyon make a compelling case for why we should get to know our neighbors (which is the easy part!), but then they provide plenty of firsthand examples of how rewarding and fulfilling it can be.  Additionally, they talk from their firsthand experiences of some of the challenges that opening your lives up to your neighbors brings.  The book is packed with practical pieces: group discussion questions, block party kits, and even more on their website.

The book moves from making the case that anyone and everyone can master the art of neighboring to some of the more pressing issues that come up once you begin the process.  I am glad that the very first thing they address in this section has to do with motivation.  Our motives in being a good neighbor can never be to convert people.  I hate it when someone calls me on the phone and is especially nice to me, only to find that their real motive is to sell me something.  It drives me crazy.  Christians are never called to be a good neighbor so that we can sneak the Gospel in there somewhere.  We are good neighbors because we are Christians.  And if we are Christians, eventually it’s going to come out, and eventually it’s going to make an impact.  But that is not our motivation.  Unfortunately, some of the rudest sales calls I’ve had at the church office has come from Christian companies trying to sell the church things – it’s almost like it’s in our blood.

The authors are also quick to speak to the Pollyanna tendency that can come from our attempts at being a good neighbor.  Once we become more intentional in our relationships  with our neighbors, it is inevitable that conflict and challenges will arise. Pathak and Runyon share firsthand stories that help reinforce the need for boundaries and the distinction between being all things to all people and being everything to everybody.

I don’t know that I’ve done a very good job of summarizing the book itself, but would encourage you to pick it up and read it yourself.  I share in their sentiment that if churches would begin to preach this message and equip and encourage their people to root their ministry in their own particular neighborhoods, we would, indeed, change the world.  If you are looking for a ministry book to encourage you, challenge you, and give you a new way to approach your local ministry, I believe you will be hard-pressed to find a better one than The Art of Neighboring.  In some ways I wish I would have read it sooner, but better later (and cheaper!) than never.  Read this book if you are looking for a practical and meaningful way you can put your faith into action and be led on an incredible journey.

The Church is the Doppelganger of Christ

We’ve all had those moments when we see someone in a crowd and smile, wave, or approach them to talk with them . . . and then realize it wasn’t who we thought it was but someone who just looked like who we thought it was.  It  can be quite embarrassing.

As a longtime fan of SNL, one of the most amazing aspects of the show is how they’ve been able to find amazing impressionists throughout their tenure.  From Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush to Will Ferrell’s famed W., and countless others, the SNL has showcased some of America’s best impressions – none more famous than Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.  When an impression is that good, it’s easy to mistake the impressionist for the real person.  Being a celebrity doppelganger leads to interesting interactions.

Throughout March, the Alum Creek Church has been reading through the Gospel of Matthew together and I was taken up with the notion of doppelgangers last week.  As I read through Matthew last week, I was struck by the fact that Christians are called to be Christ’s doppelgangers.  We are supposed to look like Jesus in our lives.  I read a book a few years ago that said we are supposed to be “little Jesuses” walking around carrying on his ministry.  I think I like the image of being his doppelgangers better.

Impressionists come in all shapes and sizes which is probably nowhere on display better than in Elvis impersonators.  You see fat Elvises, skinny Elvises, old Elvises, and everything in between.  Throw a sequin suit on with some slicked back, black hair – add some sweet lamb chops and sunglasses, and everyone knows who you are trying to be.  Some, obviously, our more realistic than others.

As I read through Matthew that imagery really stuck with me.  That’s what we are supposed to be.  Not some cheap, tacky Elvis impersonator, but a real, authentic doppelganger who, if seen from a distance at an airport, would easily be confused for the real thing.  The problem is, too many churches are putting cheap and tacky replicas on display.  Too many churches mistaken the smoke and mirrors of Sunday worship services for authentic Jesus communities.  The problem with that is that Matthew is completely absent of any tacky impersonation.

Jesus oozes humility.  He spends his time with people no one else wants to.  He disrupts the religious establishment.  He gives up his power.  He instructs his followers to put their weapons down.  If we start doing that . . . maybe people will start treating us like they treated him.  If that starts happening, then we can begin to ask ourselves whether we really want to be like him or not.