Category: the character of God

Waco Christians celebrate God’s Love for Immigrants

Naz Mustakim, an immigrant from Singapore, shares his story.
Monica Lake | Lariat Photographer

By Alan Bean

Last night at Waco’s Calvary Baptist Church, Friends of Justice sponsored a worship “God’s Heart Toward Immigrants”, an ecumenical worship service that brought Christians from Anglo, Latino and African American congregations into one place to consider what the Bible has to say about immigration.  A lot, it turns out.  For those with eyes to see, the Bible is bursting with clear, radical, uncompromising instruction that leaves little to the imagination.  Here are links to the NBC story and the write up in the Baylor University Lariat.  Below I have pasted the text of the sermon I preached at this event.  It quickly became obvious that a good portion of the 140 people gathered in the Calvary sanctuary spoke little English, so a local pastor volunteered to translate as I preached.  After the service, people told me they had never heard a sermon like that before.  One day, I pray, these sentiments will not seem unusual.

A Common Peace Community

The last time I preached in Waco we talked about the ancient confession imbedded in the book of Deuteronomy:

“A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” (more…)

Dobson and Huckabee go over to the dark side

By Alan Bean

The Sandy Hook tragedy has sparked deep reflection nationwide.  President Obama served as Pastor in Chief when he prefaced his remarks in Newtown with a quotation from 2 Corinthians 4:

. . . do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away . . . inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

The president knew he couldn’t fix what happened last Friday, and he didn’t try.  But he spoke the words of comfort that were his to speak.  That is all any of us can do.

And then there are all those other guys.

If this was just about the latest outrage from the twisted souls at Westboro Baptist Church (must they call themselves Baptists?) I would let it slide.  By now, we are agonizingly familiar with their shtick.  “God hates fags and everybody who doesn’t hate fags as much as he does.”  Yeah, we get it.  The church has decided to picket the funerals in Newtown . . . a new low, I suppose, but not by much.

But it isn’t just folks on the fringe who feel honor-bound to make nasty at such a time as this.

Governor Mike Huckabee, preacher, Fox News celebrity and perennial presidential hopeful, just opined that God declined to stay the hand of Adam Lanza because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”

Not to be outdone, James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, gave us his take on “what’s going on.”  America has been complicit in the murder of 54 million babies since Roe v. Wade, and “the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition”, “so I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”

Huckabee, Dobson et al aren’t sure exactly what pushed God’s buttons.  It might have been gay marriage.  It might have been abortion.  Or maybe it was the 1963 Supreme Court decision making school prayer was unconstitutional.  Most likely it was a combination of all three–the trifecta of evil.  But at some point God decided to punish America by ordering the slaying of twenty innocent first-graders.

Really, guys!  That’s the God you worship.  Herod the Great slaughters innocents; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ weeps for them.  Jesus doesn’t have much to say about hell except when he’s talking about those who mess with his “little ones.”

Of course, these guys aren’t saying that God was directly responsible for the death of school children.  It’s just that he could have stopped it and declined to do so.  The Creator could be charged with being an accessory after the fact, but not with murder.

That’s comforting.  God tells the lost soul with the assault weapon, “Normally I’d put a stop to this, but these people need a wake up call, so, do your worst.”

That is precisely what the preachers are alleging.  So let’s get one thing straight: That is not God.  God is not that.  In the First John we learn that God is love . . . full stop.  Or, if we wish to quibble,  “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

The God of Huckabee and Dobson would be familiar to Darth Vader and his legions.  The preachers appear to have slipped over to The Dark Side.

How do we explain such strange talk from esteemed holy men?  The Apostles of the Religious Right have so consistently equated gay bashing, opposition to abortion, and school prayer with holiness that God has been subsumed under these headings.  For four decades, the culture war has reshaped American evangelicalism so successfully that abortion, gay bashing and school prayer have consumed all other concerns.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Sandy Hook tragedy should provoke serious moral reflection.  Violence works for the entertainment industry just like culture war wedge issues work for the Religious Right.  In both cases, an ugly product is hawked in the market place because it sells.  We have been raised on a steady diet of violence.  We love the stuff.  It shapes our culture, our national identity, and all too often our foreign policy.  We’ve got a problem.  We need help.  Badly.

But God is not responsible, directly or indirectly, for the slaughter of innocents.  That’s on us.  God is Love.  God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all.  None, whatsoever!

Changing the wind in Waco

By Alan Bean

An earlier post, Immigration and the Heart of God, was written for the event described in this article.  The goal was to place the immigration issue on the agenda of the faith community.  Friends of Justice has been part of this work for several months now and, in cooperation with like-minded groups and individuals, we plan to expand the scope of the Immigration and the People of God program described below.  Lydia Bean’s comment captures the spirit of this work: “It is very clear this is something God cares about.  Politicians always have their finger in the wind to see how it blows.  Rather than trying to change the politicians, we’re trying to change the wind.”

Waco churches urged to join immigration reform discussion


Sunday September 2, 2012

Local activists are encouraging Waco churches to join a nationwide effort that seeks to move the discussion about immigration policy from the political arena to church pews.

The effort kicked off this summer with a symposium that explored what the Bible says about immigrants and how Christians should respond. Held at First Spanish Assembly of God Church in Waco, it drew representatives from 27 organizations, most of them churches, organizer Manuel Sustaita said.

Now, the fledging group is encouraging pastors to follow through on pledges they made at the event, said Lydia Bean, another organizer.

Nine said they would preach sermons this fall related to God’s heart for immigrants. Others vowed to hold voter registration drives or host guest speakers to educate members about immigration issues, she said.

The group plans to meet later this month to talk about possibly hosting a broader community event, Bean said. But for now, the focus is on encouraging congregations to discuss immigration issues. That sort of grass-roots effort is the best bet for prompting meaningful immigration reform, she said.

“I think it is very clear this is something God cares about . . . Politicians always have their finger in the wind and see how it blows,” said Bean, an assistant sociology professor at Baylor University. “Rather than trying to change the politicians, we’re trying to change the wind.”

Bean and Sustaita — who is known to many in the community because of his role as founder of the Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial — declined to publicly list the churches involved. They said they are sensitive to the fact that immigration policy is a politically touchy issue and want to let pastors approach it in their own time and own way.

But most of the churches involved are evangelical, they said.

The Catholic Church has long advocated immigration reform, Bean and Suistaita noted. So parishes here are already involved in the issue.

But the topic is only recently gaining traction in evangelical circles, Bean said. (more…)

Immigration and the Heart of God

This presentation was part of a People of Faith and Immigration gathering, July 24, 2012 at the First Spanish Assembly of God in Waco, Texas.

Immigration and the Heart of God

By Alan Bean

Why are our churches so silent on the immigration issue?    Is it because a range of opinion exists within our congregations on the immigration issue and pastors fear they might spark a civil war if they touch on the subject?

Or do we fear that if we approached the immigration issue from a biblical perspective, or viewed the subject through the lens of Jesus Christ, we might arrive at mushy, impractical conclusions that don’t wear well in the real world?

The biblical narrative begins as Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden.  Next we meet Abraham, Sarah and their descendants.  These people are sojourners, undocumented aliens.  They wander the Promised Land as exiles, never finding a true home.  Eventually, the sons of Jacob show up in Egypt with a message for Pharaoh: “We have come to reside as aliens in the land; for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan.”

God’s children move from being undocumented aliens in Canaan to being undocumented aliens in Egypt.  They were driven by hardship, by the need for food, work and the means of survival.  They have come to be reunited with their brother Joseph.

Which is why the oldest confession of faith in the Bible begins:

A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression.  (more…)

Learning from Joe Paterno

By Alan Bean

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Penn State University stands to lose a large chunk of the institution’s $1.8 billion endowment to the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s abusive behavior.  A scathing report issued by a group headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh alleges that Football coach Joe Paterno and other senior Penn State officials “concealed critical facts” about Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse because they feared negative publicity.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Penn State football, symbolized by the revered Joe Paterno, was such a central part of life in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that any threat to the reputation of the institution, the Nittany Lions, or the iconic coach who symbolized the university and its beloved football team was doggedly resisted.    It wasn’t just that Paterno had won two national championships; he was part of America’s love affair with college football.  Paterno pacing the sidelines was a familiar and reassuring part of Saturday afternoons for decades.  You couldn’t tell the truth about Jerry Sandusky  without making Joe Paterno look bad; you couldn’t damage Paterno’s reputation without besmirching Penn State University; and you couldn’t drag the alma mater through the mud without driving a stake through the heart of Keystone State.  Everything was connected. (more…)

Would God kill homosexuals if he had the chance?

By Alan Bean

Pastor Curtis Knapp is probably a great guy. I have been a Baptist pastor in Kansas and I know the type: kind, gentle, fun-loving, infinitely polite. In a recent sermon, Pastor Knapp suggested that the government, if it understood its divine mandate aright, would put gay people to death. He wasn’t advocating vigilante violence, mind you; only the government is authorized for this kind of malice.

Now he says he was misquoted. Or quoted out of context. Or quoted by people who, were they as drenched in the biblical world view as his congregants, would have realized he loves gay people and wants them saved, not slaughtered.

On the other hand, Pastor Knapp still thinks God, if he had his way in this wicked world, would have gays massacred en masse. The Almighty said as much in plain black and white in the 20th chapter of Leviticus.

That passage (I call it the ‘killin’ chapter) also calls for the summary execution of adulterers, idolators, father-cursers, and sinners engaged in various kinds of incestuous coupling. Even sex with a menstruating woman is liable to punishment–for the man and the woman.

When people talk about “the angry God of the Old Testament” this is what they have in mind. You could spend a lifetime in most churches and never hear a single sermonic reference to Leviticus 20; but pastor Knapp ain’t no kangaroo preacher who bounces over the tough texts.

How should Christians interpret this kind of passage? The normal practice is to pretend the “texts of terror” don’t exist. If you don’t get around in the Bible much, that works pretty well.

But there are always folks intent on reading the Bible clear through. Some of them even make it to Leviticus 20. “Oh my God,” they say, “I’ll have to talk to the preacher about this.”

But the conversation rarely takes place. Parishioners fear, rightly, that the preacher won’t have a comforting or enlightening answer, so they try to forget about it.

Creative exegetes find clever ways to domesticate passages like Leviticus 20. Perhaps this is just hyperbole, the intentional overstatement of the truth. God doesn’t want us to kill homosexuals; He just wants us to know he hates them (and idolators, and adulterers and father-cursers, and . . .)

I’m not sure this helps much. If God thinks homosexuals are an abomination, why shouldn’t there be open season on the non-straight?

And if sexual orientation isn’t a choice, it must express the creative will of God. Does God make people gay and then hate them for it? Is this commendable, or even logical?

In all likelihood, the author of Leviticus believed that everybody is born straight because that’s the way God planned it. The perverse insistence on going against your natural inclinations constitutes a conscious rejection of God which must not be tolerated. This view of creation is then attributed to the Creator.

Unfortunately for adherents of the “biblical worldview,” this understanding of sexual orientation is just plain wrong. If some people are born gay, either God messed up, God isn’t in control, or God wants it that way. Either way, God must bear the ultimate responsibility.

This issue comes down to the character of God. Is God the perfection of love, as the Bible insists, or is God a weird alloy of love and hate, good and evil who must be obeyed even if he doesn’t make sense because . . . he’s God?

A proper understanding of incarnation is helpful here. According to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), Jesus was fully God and fully human, even if we can’t understand how that could be so. To be fully human, Jesus had to be born into a specific culture at a specific time, and the tenor of his teaching would reflect that fact. Jesus spoke and acted as a first century, Second Temple, Palestinian Jewish peasant because that’s what it means for God to empty himself of divinity and take on human flesh.

God speaks to us through the Scriptures. But here too the logic of Chalcedon applies. The Bible is utterly of God and utterly human. Being human, the Bible reflects the perceptions and thought processes of the epoch in which it was written. It is the product of a pre-scientific world. As an inescapable consequence, the Bible doesn’t give us a scientific take on creation.

To say that the Bible must be right because it is God-breathed is like saying that Jesus, although he appeared to be human, was really God wearing a clever disguise. We can’t have it both ways. Incarnation and inspiration are both self-limiting realities. God comes to us clothed in human limitation and yet is never less than God.

You aren’t suppose to understand this, and you certainly don’t have to believe it; but that’s what orthodox Christian teaching boils down to.

So, what if the scientists speak of evolution over billions of years and the Bible speaks of fiat creation over a six-day period? Which is right? Almost half of the American population believes that buying into evolution means giving up on God. But evolution is just another form of incarnation; a completely natural process that is entirely the work of God. God doesn’t just give the evolutionary process a nudge now and then; God inhabits the evolutionary process.

Which brings us back to texts of terror like Leviticus 20. A Christocentric (Christ-centered) interpretation of Scripture means reading Leviticus through the mind of Christ. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. Jesus counseled his disciples to forgive their enemies and wouldn’t back down from the hard implications of this teaching even when nailed to the rough wood of a Roman cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jesus didn’t reference Leviticus 20 either, but he did address the death penalty.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

How would Jesus respond to Pastor Knapp and the twentieth chapter of Leviticus? “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘hate the homosexual’, and ‘when a man lies with a male as with a woman they shall be put to death.’ But I say to you, love everyone. If you look down on your homosexual brother or sister, you are liable to judgment, and if you call your brother a ‘fag’, a ‘fairy’ or a ‘dyke’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Did Jesus really believe in hell? I don’t know, but he talked about it all the time and, inevitably, the hell-bound are the unforgiving, the uncompassionate, and the hard of heart. If the biblical worldview is the vision of Jesus (and I believe it is) there can be no place for sermons that pander to the worst impulses of the people in the pew.

God is good all the time. We are all helpless sinners, even the best of us. We are all saved by the infinite grace revealed in the eyes of Christ the Savior. Thanks be to God.