December 2011


“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Jesus, in Matthew 7:21).

“[T]ruth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth [is] its tendency to
promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And…no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings
truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s
opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection
between faith and practice, truth and duty”
(Presbyterian Church [USA] Book of Order 2011-2013, F-3.0104).

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A Methodist bishop in Alabama described the state’s immigration law as one of the nation’s “meanest.” State senator Bill Holtzclaw responded to the charge with this: “I want you to know I am a Christian. I’m a Methodist, and I voted for this law. This legislation was written by Christians” (The Christian Century, December 22, 2011: 9). 

My purpose here is not to debate the merits of the Alabama statute, because I know nothing much about it. Instead, what I want to do is reflect a bit on how the bishop’s and the senator’s contrasting views on the law remind us of one of the central issues in the church and the nation today: the definition of “Christian.”

I suspect the majority of people in the churches and those outside the Church who still care about such things believe that being Christian means a) the same thing as “American”; b) being a “good” person, especially as measured by your gifts to charity, whether your time or your money and by your abstention from  drinking/smoking/ cursing; c) believing certain doctrines about Jesus/God/the Holy Spirit; d) belonging to a church; e) being against abortion and gay marriage and for Israel; f) all of the above. So, because on this view being a Christian has to do with intellectual assent to propositions and support of an institution, one can be a Christian and write a law or do something else which others, also claiming to be Christian, would label as “mean.”

The minority these days would claim that being a Christian is not about what you believe, but whom you follow, namely, Jesus. And they would point out that Jesus commanded us to care for the poor and the stranger in our midst (Matthew 25) and that he told us we would be judged on how we treated the “least of these.” In this, these folk would go on to observe, Jesus echoed the Mosaic law, which commanded the love of neighbor as oneself; and the Old Testament prophets, who were constantly calling for justice for the poor, the overlooked, and the left-out. The litmus test of faith is thus not assent to a doctrinal stance or your position on a hot-button issue, but rather the total witness of your life, especially how your faith works itself out in the way you treat others. And not just giving them charity, but moving beyond charity to doing justice. Not just being nice, but showing true compassion. Not just saying a prayer of praise on Sundays, but walking humbly with God daily. So, no one who is really a follower of Jesus could even contemplate writing legislation which people of goodwill and sensitive conscience would label “mean.”

I’m reminded of the statement of the biblical author James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (2:19). He was making the point that faith (doctrinal assent) without works (specifically, taking care of the bodily needs of neighbors) is dead. Faith, he insists, is shown by works.

The assassinated bishop Oscar Romero reminded us that charity is the standard by which so many measure “Christian” works. And charity is necessary and good until there is justice. But charity is also approved of by the Powers That Be; it’s the safe way to go. It does not challenge the assumptions or the comfort of those at the top of the ladder. Romero (or some say it was Dom Helder Camara) said: “When I fed the poor they called me a Saint, when I asked why they are poor, they called me a Communist."

No doubt the debate will go on and on. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But this I do know: those who were once people of faith or who are of no faith (like so many younger adults*) are not convinced or impressed by the doctrinal wrangling and hate-filled invectives of so-called “Christians” of any stripe. As pastor Dan Kimball has noted in a book title “they like Jesus, but not the church.” What they do pay attention to is whether those who name the name of Jesus actually follow him and seek to live as he lived. As he himself said: “By their fruits you will know them.”

Judging by the fruit of our lives, not the words of our mouths, are you and I Christians?

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

*For a particularly poignant look at faith (or the lack of it, actually) from the point of view of a thirty-something, see Margaret Wheeler Johnson’s piece here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-wheeler-johnson/atheism-religion-doubt-faith_b_1172849.html?ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=122911&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

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A couple of recent stories on NPR provided a look in microcosm at the vast income inequality in our society today. In one, someone had paid $800K for Orson Welles’ Oscar® for Citizen Kane at a Sotheby’s auction. $800,000 for a statue to gather dust! Absurd and outrageous, and yes, immoral in this day of so much suffering and such disparity between the uber-well-to-do and the rest of us.

The other piece was about a mother in Austell, GA, outside Atlanta, who had been unemployed since 2008, as I recall, and was now underemployed with a not-for-profit. She had to tell her son that she did not have the gas to take him to the church camp in nearby Villa Rica, GA that he wanted to attend. All she could afford was gas to get to work and to church. She told the tale through tears. How much gas would that anonymous bidder’s $800K have bought for that mother and other people like her? I was outraged. (I heard these stories on “All Things Considered,” Wednesday, December 21, 2011.)

Of course, there are great stories on the news about good-hearted people who fix and give away bikes or who are paying off layaway accounts for families who can’t afford to get their toys and other gifts. That even happened right here in Starkville, MS, where a man paid $1000 at the local Wal-Mart for layaways of toys and bikes, obviously for children, as identified by the clerk.

But these wonderful acts of charity in a way only punctuate the lack of income justice in this nation, where so many claim to be Christian, but ignore the poor and cater to the rich, and focus instead of trivialities like an SNL skit about Jesus and Tim Tebow or complain about people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Probably the best recent commentary on this situation I have seen is this video from Stephen Colbert’s program on Comedy Central, which I saw posted by someone on Facebook. Colbert says it all. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/368914/december-16-2010/jesus-is-a-liberal-democrat.

The birth of Jesus is cut from the same cloth as the rest of the gospel. It can’t be separated from his teaching, his death, his resurrection and ascension. The baby in the manger is the same Lord we are called to give our ultimate loyalty to, the same one who told us that in the least of these we serve him. Christmas is a calling, a way of life. Let us honor Christmas in our hearts every day by following Jesus and doing justice.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

On Highway 82 just outside of Albany, GA, near a landscaping firm, there is on a hill a single tree done up completely in white lights. Simple, bright, elegant.

Just up the road is another business, a car dealership, featuring a used car in gaudy livery, with Santa waving from the driver’s seat, with colored lights and the traditional mash-up of accoutrements of Christmas. Vulgar, overdone, in your face.

I thought as I drove past these displays last Friday evening that they represented two approaches to this season. One is quiet, contemplative, focused, restful. The other is rushed, full of unnecessary drama, stress, and worry. And it further seemed to me that the way people approach Christmas is the same way they live their everyday lives. Some seek to do one thing well and without shouting and self-promotion. They are the single tree standing bright against the night. Others are constantly rushing and spending and running, and to what end? Only their own exhaustion and brokenness. They are the gaudy, too-much Santa car.

“Purity of heart,” said the philosopher, “is to will one thing.” And Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem grown up, taught us what that is: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

A single star shone at Christmas, pointing the way. Maybe God was reminding us that life doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

I intended to share with you today a version of my original song “Holiness Road” sung, with full rock band accompaniment, by the Rev. Christine Coy-Fohr, when she was a 16 year-old member of the youth group at First Presbyterian Church in Owensboro, KY. The lyrics are based on Isaiah 35:1-10, which appears in the lectionary (Year A) as the Old Testament lesson for the third Sunday in Advent (AKA “Gaudete {“Rejoice!”] Sunday”). Unfortunately, despite a diligent effort, I couldn’t find the old tape, which I (re)discovered fairly recently. I did locate a very badly done home recording of me croaking out the song with one of my acoustic guitars, complete with a phone ringing in the background near the end.  But it turns out not to matter anyway; I can’t upload MP3s to this blog. I don’t have the proper plug-in.

So, I’ll just settle for sharing the lyrics with you. But that’s in a bit. The search for the tape and the little feeling of loss I experienced when I couldn’t find the rare recording (which if I truly cherished, I would have put in a readily accessible place) reminded me of another personal loss associated with Advent, greater by several orders of magnitude than misplacing music.

I mean the death of my father one year ago tomorrow.

So I’m grateful for the text of Isaiah 35:1-10, that talks about the desert blossoming and people being renewed and rejoicing, as sorrow and sighing flee away. Here are the prophet’s stirring words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

My own version is a rollicking piece of rock, beginning with a riff rather like one I heard years ago on some Elton John song. It’s fun to play, as I did yesterday, even for the umpteenth time, and sorrow flees away.

Maybe if you feel sadness and have experienced loss, you too can be lifted up as you read:

I’m gonna sing and shout for joy, walkin’ down the holiness road! Nothin’ can my hope destroy, walkin’ down the holiness road!

Walkin’ that holiness road! Walkin’ that holiness road!

Lame man (or one) gonna leap and dance! Walkin’ down the holiness road! Blind man (or one) gonna see at last! Walkin’ down the holiness road!

Walkin’ that holiness road, etc…

God will lead his people, walkin’ down that holiness road! Guide and feed his people, walkin’ down that holiness road.

Walkin’ that, etc.…

God will not desert me, walkin’ that holiness road. No one there to hurt me, walkin’ that holiness road.

Walkin’ that, etc.…

Have a blessed and joyful Sunday and week!

© 2011 Tom Cheatham; “Holiness Road,” words and music © 1995 Tom Cheatham

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

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“Competitive shopping turned violent at a Los Angeles–area Walmart when a woman fired pepper spray to keep other shoppers at bay. Police say 20 people suffered minor injuries from the spray and subsequent “rapid crowd movement.” Witnesses say they heard screams coming from a crowd of shoppers rushing for discounted Xboxes and Wiis” (see note 1).

“A Black Friday shopper who collapsed while shopping at a Target store in West Virginia went almost unnoticed as customers continued to hunt for bargain deals.

“Walter Vance, the 61-year-old pharmacist, who reportedly suffered from a prior heart condition, later died in hospital, reports MSNBC.

“Witnesses say some shoppers ignored and even walked over the man’s body as they continued to shop, reports the New York Daily News

“Friends and co-workers saddened to learn of his death, expressed outrage over the way he was treated by shoppers” (see note 2).

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Assaulting others for a game console? Stepping over a dying man? (At least some nurses shopping in Target assisted the man until paramedics arrived. Kudos to them for having a moral compass and being true to their oath as medical professionals.)

We hear these kinds of stories every year. And I’m sickened by them. How is hurting other people as you rush to get a deal a fit preparation to celebrate the birth of the One who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many? Answer: it’s not. People really don’t care about living like Jesus did, no matter how many Christmas carols they sing about “preparing him room.”

It’s because of the flawed or non-existent moral sense of shoppers and all of us in general that we need to pay more attention to the season of Advent. Not an easy calling. Nothing could more counter-cultural than to emphasize its focus on simplicity, humble repentance, and waiting (AKA deferred gratification) over excess, shameless self-promotion, and rushing into stores and toward Christmas Day itself.

Don’t expect much along those lines, though, from the dominant churches in this nation, namely, the evangelicals and fundamentalists. A radio host on a “Christian” radio station I tuned into while surfing the frequencies last Sunday gushed about how glad she was that we could now “legitimately” say “merry Christmas,” since it was after Thanksgiving. A Baptist church in a nearby town already has scheduled for tonight tours of live nativity scenes and a mock-up of the biblical Bethlehem. These kinds of Christians contribute to the culture’s fixation on rushing toward Christmas, instead of helping us to step back and ask questions about our consumption, our need to get and have, and our reluctance to repent.

But truth be told, the oldline/offline (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal…) and Catholic churches don’t do much better, even though we recognize Advent and hear texts on its Sundays about judgment and longing and changing our ways. We are urged to make the crooked straight and the mountains low. Yet we either have so little influence on the culture or we have been so co-opted by it or the pressure is so great to conform that our voices go unheeded. The cacophony set up by all the ads and horrible Christmas Musak and kids clamoring for their favorite toys and electronics is so loud, so harsh, so utterly crushing that even the strong preaching of John the Baptist is drowned out, not to mention the warnings of Jesus or the singing of Mary.

I truly despair for our nation and for its churches. But maybe as in days gone by, a few will be able to reset their moral direction by sighting on the “bright morning star” (Revelation 22:6) and lead the way to renewal. That would be the most wonderful Christmas present of all.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Note 1

http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2011/11/25/woman-pepper-sprays-shoppers.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_morning&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_morning&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet

Note 2

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/27/black-friday-target_n_1115372.html?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily%20Brief&utm_campaign=daily_brief