These days “religious freedom” is used by individuals and institutions as an excuse for intolerance, hatred, refusal of justice, and discrimination. “Christianity” is often equivalent to narrow-minded exclusivism and meanness, thus driving away from the Church those who may in fact admire Jesus.

I ran across some observations from one of the theological forebears of my Reformed and Presbyterian tradition the other day that ought to be taken to heart by anyone of any branch of the faith as a corrective to such a twisted version of our religion. John Calvin, you may know, was not exactly a warm, inviting man, but I believe he sought to follow Christ. In his Institutes (II, viii, 55) he wrote*:

Now, since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term ‘neighbor’ includes even the most remote person…we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. I do not deny that the more closely a man is linked to us, the more intimate obligation we have to assist him. It is the common habit of mankind that the more closely men are bound together by the ties of kinship, of acquaintanceship, or of neighborhood, the more responsibilities for one another they share. This does not offend God; for his providence, as it were, leads us to it. But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves…. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God. who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.

Or if Calvin doesn’t have sufficient authority for you, how about this from the Gospel of Mark (12:28-31):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “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.

*Original gender-specific language retained. Footnotes omitted.

© 2015 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


Here we go again! Outraged “Christians” here in Starkville recently threatened a local popular restaurant with a boycott because its marquee had used the shorthand “Xmas” instead of spelling out “Christmas.” The malicious, godless owners were taking Christ out of Christmas! They were replacing the title of the Savior with a generic, meaningless symbol! Another evidence of the attempt by liberals keep us from remembering “the reason for the season”! Never mind that what looks like an “X” in “Xmas” is not an English letter at all, but instead is the monogram of Christ, the Greek letter “chi” (c ) as in the famous “Chi Rho” symbol (cr). It’s seen all the time in ancient icons. But ignorant people simply assume that there’s a conspiracy or someone is out to denigrate their faith, not that they could be wrong. They don’t take the time to find out facts.

If these “Christians” want to be outraged over something, how about:

  • racial injustice, gender bias, and homophobia;
  • income inequality;
  • animal cruelty;
  • constant war;
  • the influence of corporate lobbyists on Congress;
  • real persecution of people of whatever faith?

And then there was the (probably fake) Peanuts cartoon I saw that somebody posted on Facebook, complaining how “it’s really strange America is the largest Christian nation in the world, and we can’t say ‘Merry Christmas.’” To quote Charlie Brown: “Good grief!” America is not a Christian nation. A nation in which the majority of people belong to a church or profess Christianity is not a Christian nation. If we were a Christian nation, we would care for the poor, welcome the stranger, tend to the sick, and serve the public good instead of the interests of a powerful few (see Matthew 25:35-46, which is a judgment of nations). As Stephen Colbert has famously said: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition…and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

As for the complaint about limiting greetings, of course we can say “Merry Christmas!” But these “Christians” complain they are being persecuted and their free speech curtailed when we are all encouraged to practice inclusiveness in word and action, such as recognizing that there are at least two other holidays around this time of year and that not everyone is a Christian. News flash: loss of power and privilege that you have had for years and years does not equal persecution. Someone saying “Happy holidays” to you in a store or on the street is not a slap at your faith. And I would think that people who claim to worship and follow Someone who called on us to love our neighbor and said he came not to be served but to serve would act kindly and with understanding toward others, especially those who do not profess Christ. Instead, these folk seem to think Christianity is a religion of domination and exclusion, and that our words ought to be used as clubs and swords against “unbelievers,” “secularists,” and “sinners.” The celebration of our Lord’s birth thus becomes a glorification of everything he and his mother (Luke 1:46-55) stood against. The arrogance of these people is appalling!

Ignorance. Arrogance. A lethal combination. God deliver us. Come, Lord Jesus!

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I’ve seen it more than once now: Jesus was homeless. The latest instance of that claim is in a blog post this week by fellow PC(USA) minister Mark Sandlin. Making the point that we can’t forget those without shelter this Christmas, Sandlin writes:  “Throughout his life Jesus would spend his ministry with no place to lay his head. This time of year we celebrate a homeless man”  ( I commend the article in general to you, but Sandlin may need to look at other biblical evidence before contending that Jesus was homeless.

The text he’s referring to is Matthew 8:20 (// Luke 9:58), in which Jesus responds to a would-be disciple by telling him that “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” From that we get the idea that Jesus wandered around the countryside, presumably with the Twelve and others, spending the night out in the open, eating what he could find, with no roots or responsibilities other than preaching the gospel and healing (which, granted, are pretty huge tasks).

The evidence from Matthew and Mark point to a different reality, though. Matthew says Jesus made his home in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13). Mark reports that when Jesus came home one day, after being gone for a time, crowds gathered at his door, and some men cut a hole in his roof and lowered a disabled man on his bed (Mark 2:1ff). So Jesus did have a home that he was either buying or renting. At the very least he had a room somewhere in the structure, presumably with kitchen privileges.

We also learn from Mark (6:3) that Jesus had a trade, and maybe therefore a job. As has often been said, he was a carpenter. Maybe somewhere in his home in Capernaum he had a workshop.

So it seems to me that Jesus’ statement that he had nowhere to lay his head has to be interpreted in light of clear texts that tell us Jesus put down roots in a particular place. I believe he was speaking in hyperbole to make a point, and that he meant he really didn’t belong anywhere. He was but a sojourner, a stranger on the earth even though he did in fact have a bed and a pillow in a warm dwelling. He was not attached to anything, but could lose it all willingly for the kingdom of God.

Caring for those without shelter is good and right and our calling from God. Jesus told us to care for “the least of these.” But we can’t base our ministry on the belief that Jesus himself was literally homeless.

Progressives complain all the time about how conservatives misuse scripture for their own ends. Those on the left lose a bit of credibility, though, when they do the same thing, no matter how good the cause.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Recently I heard a minister claim that God could (and presumably would) lead a congregation to split from the PC(USA), whose elected representatives had had the audacity, at this summer’s General Assembly, to pass some measures that he and his church council vehemently disagreed with. At the same time, other people are pleased to remain in the denomination, also because they feel led by God to do so, but in their case because they are convinced that the Assembly followed the Spirit of Christ in its decisions. Still more folks are not particularly interested in politics, policies, and pronouncements and simply want to be left in peace to minister in their own communities, far from the storms raging elsewhere. And again, they would claim it’s God’s will that they do this.

When I reported what I heard to my wife, she and I both wondered how exactly it worked that God told people contradictory things and led them to do precisely the opposite from what their sisters and brothers in faith did.

Isn’t it more likely that all this “God” talk is really just the baptism of what we already wanted to do? We take the Bible and read it through whatever lenses feel comfortable to wear and claim that our sin-soaked interpretation is the “right” one, the “only” one, the “clear” one, “God’s word.” And we’re not even aware that our take on Scripture and God’s will may well be just as mixed up and prejudiced and downright wrong as anybody else’s.

None of us, in fact, can or does see the whole Truth. Like Moses (Exodus 33:23), we can only see God’s back, not God’s face, the full-on revelation of all God is and where God leads. Yes, God has come among us in Jesus Christ, who is God’s Word, but that does not mean he ceases to be sovereign or mysterious or “wholly Other” (Tillich). So unless and until we have plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of God’s reality and spoken with him face to face and have had definitively revealed what he wants, a little humility is called for. Let’s focus for now on what we do have clearly from both testaments: that the will of God is love. For him. For our neighbors. For ourselves. As Paul put it, in these days of dim mirrors and partial knowledge, love abides. When we love, that’s the surest sign we can have that we are indeed being led by God.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

A conservative minister attending an ecumenical meeting complained that even in his town, nestled snugly in the heart of the Bible Belt, a business event competed with Sunday services. Specifically, the local Chamber of Commerce had scheduled a meet-and-greet with Santa, complete with cookies and milk, from 10 AM until noon the Sunday before Thanksgiving (Christ the King Sunday). The minister had intended to celebrate a baptism that day for the child of a Chamber employee, and now the sacrament would need to be moved to another Lord’s Day. This pastor clearly expected that the activities of the Church would take priority over any other events on a Sunday, especially in the South.

Maybe that was so back in the day. But no more. Not even in the South. Sure, businesses still close on Sundays, but that is by the choice of the local owner or the franchise office. “Blue laws” no longer force everyone to conform to Christian practices. Restaurants can serve alcohol, and stores sell it, on Sunday, whether the teetotalers in the congregation down the street like it or not. Soccer games are scheduled on Sunday mornings. Plenty of people from small towns to big cities routinely actually rest on Sunday after working a long week rather than attending services and listening to sermons that fail to inspire and strengthen. Perhaps the last vestiges of a bygone era are the opening of public events with explicitly Christian prayers and  the alliance of the religious right with the political right that  dominates Southern politics.

The reality of our day is that the Church cannot depend on cultural props and laws to support its life and message. Indeed, it must not. Instead, the Church needs to present such a winsome and compelling word of faith, hope, and love that everyone will be drawn to it, instead of being repelled as an increasing number are. It needs to be a safe place to ask questions and be oneself without fear of condemnation and ostracism. It should insist on intellectual rigor in dealing with the Bible and theology and welcome the insights of the sciences and the arts, rather than discounting them. In sum, the Church should be a model of grace and acceptance as it follows Jesus.

It’s the crumbling edifice that needs propping up so that it doesn’t fall down. It’s long past time for the Church, for its own good, to stand on its own, and welcome the challenge as a gift. As Walter Brueggemann once said: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God” (quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith: 122; original source in Brueggemann’s works unknown). 

©2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I’ve made some interesting and helpful discoveries lately. Why I didn’t see these things years ago, I don’t know. Distracted and not paying attention, I suppose.

One realization is about my clergy shirt and collar. Ever since I started wearing that garb (sometime in the 1980s), I’ve struggled to put the little metal stud into the back buttonhole on the neckband of the shirt. The stud is a post that holds the plastic “dog collar” in place on the shirt if a clergyperson is not wearing a rabat (a kind of vest). Somehow it dawned on me just a couple of months ago that I could put the stud in the buttonhole before I put the shirt on! It was like a revelation! Now I don’t have to twist and turn and risk dropping the stud on the carpet.

The other discovery was just two days ago. I’ve been with the church I serve about five years. The key to the outside door of the house where I have my study looks exactly like the one that opens my office door: brass, with a round head. I’ve marked the office key with a sticker, permanent marker, anything to tell it from the outside key. Nothing really lasted. On Wednesday I finally saw that my interior key had the raised word “Yale” stamped on it; the other one doesn’t. Now I can tell the keys apart, even in the dark, by feel.

These are hardly earth-shattering breakthroughs in human understanding. But I did begin to wonder because of them: How often are our lives or those of our neighbors and friends made difficult because we don’t pay attention to details or to our surroundings? We don’t bother to read the fine print on a contract; we assume everything will be OK. We fail to check a box in the settings on our computers, and the machines don’t work properly. We mishear a word in a conversation or news report, latch onto that, post it on social media, and suddenly there’s a flood of misinformation for which we are responsible. We text and drive, looking at the phone instead of the road, and we have a wreck. Focused on those same phones or on some other screen, we don’t notice beauty that is a gift of God, like the deer peeking out from the woods or the lovely colors of a sunset, and so we miss out on free help in lifting our spirits after a hard day.

It took me years to discover two little things that would make my work life simpler and less frustrating. I pray you don’t have to wait that long for your epiphanies.

©2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

This week a careless backhoe operator hit a clearly marked water line in my neighborhood while digging a hole for the installation of fiber optic cable. The project promises 100% faster Internet for subscribers. But now, because of the accident, we must boil water until test results come back sometime Monday. I commented to a friend how ironic it is that in our quest for faster speeds to stream movies and download whatever, we were thrust back to the Dark Ages, having to purify our water as if it came from a creek.

Such ironies in fact abound in our so-called “connected” day. We walk around with our ears to or our eyes on our phones and pay little attention to the people or the sights around us. We have 1000 friends or followers on social media, but don’t know the person down the street. We display some of our worst tendencies toward cruelty and stupidity sometimes when commenting on a news story or someone’s “status.” Our technology has not improved the human heart. Indeed, it has given us new and more efficient ways to humiliate and kill each other.

I’m no Luddite. The irony of my writing a blog post about the evils of how we use our fancy tools does not escape me. But I wonder sometimes if in our quest for speed and efficiency, we have forgotten how to slow down, take time truly to listen or merely enjoy silence. If we could do that, I think we would begin to recover our essential humanity, the wholeness God desires.

And that really would be progress.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.