No Longer a Caged Twitter Bird

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Alfred Gatty, Public Domain via Reusable Art

I found out the other day that bobonbooks.com, which had been blocked on Twitter for about a month, is no longer blocked. I can post links from this blog page and when people click on links, they no longer get scary warning messages that suggest all sorts of nefarious things could happen if they went to my website (even though this never was an actual problem). I never received an explanation from Twitter as to why I was blocked, what I needed to do to get unblocked, nor that I was no longer being blocked. I simply observed that scheduled posts were now posting to Twitter.

My reaction? I was glad, sobered, and educated.

Glad. One of the main things I do on this blog is post reviews of books, particularly recently published books I’ve received from publishers to review. Tweeting my reviews to the publisher is one way of alerting them I have a review up (I often also email a link to publishers’ publicists). Publishers also like to re-tweet reviews they think will help promote the book. None of that was possible and the scary messages were wrongly discrediting my website. I’m glad all this has gone away, hopefully for good.

Sobered. I hadn’t imagined something like this could happen. I am careful to observe the Terms of Service on social media and any admin rules on pages where I post. I’d never had something like this happen before. One day, I simply discovered that although I could post tweets, I could no longer post any links, even in shortened form, from my site to Twitter. I discovered that the likely cause was a “false positive” report on my site that was filed at PhishTank, a blacklisting site used by many institutions to block “phishing” sites. These reports are not verified nor are website owners notified. I discovered that two other blacklisting sites subsequently had me on their unsafe lists, and I learned from some friends that my website came up with warnings or were blocked at their work computers. I don’t know why this happened. I do post material related to my religious beliefs. I wonder if that was the reason. Maybe it was just random. Whatever it was, it was a personal encounter with a dark side of the web.

Perhaps the most sobering experience was how long it took to get “unblocked” by Twitter. To the credit of the blacklisting sites, when I asked them to review my site, it took minutes to a day at most for them to change the status of my site to safe. I submitted a ticket to Twitter as well. It took a month for them to finally unblock the site. As I said above, I have no clue why I was blocked or unblocked. I was surprised and glad that I was able to post links to bobonbooks.com. My son had suggested I just give up, which I about had, because, in his words, “there is no upside for them.”

Educated. Here are some things I learned:

  • Technically, because my site is hosted on WordPress.com, “drive-by” attacks that post malware or phishing links cannot happen because of their security protocols. I doubt whether this is foolproof, but if someone hacks WordPress.com, there are potentially millions of us compromised. However, if an individual user is blacklisted, you are on your own.
  • If you host your own website, or it is hosted elsewhere, you do need to take the security of your site seriously. Make sure your software, virus and anti-malware software is up to date and running, and you have a good firewall. There are also companies that provide website and reputation protection. If you do business on your site, some form of this protection could be a good investment.
  • I now use Sucuri SiteCheck to check my site daily. It scans your site for malware and phishing links and also checks nine of the top blacklisting sites. It may not be foolproof, but it is a good line of defense and helped me discover blacklisting sites where I was blacklisted. Sucuri rates my site “safe” and not listed on any of the nine blacklisting sites it scans.
  • I revisited my own security practices and added dual authentication to my blog site. Anyone else logging on results in a text to my cell phone. I also clear spam comments, moderate commenting, and block spammers. Visitors to the site never see this.
  • While you can take steps to secure your site, it is still possible for your site to be wrongly blacklisted. Blacklisting sites only check your site if you ask them, and once you are blacklisted somewhere, it spreads to all who use those sites to protect their systems or end users. It can seriously affect your web traffic and your site’s reputation. It can happen to you! I’m not a big fish and it happened to me. I’ve learned it has happened to others.
  • Social media sites like Twitter currently can do what they want. They are not regulated. They have no obligation to offer live support. To have real people available for users with a problem that requires immediate attention may, in my son’s words, “have no upside.” If anything, the death of internet neutrality rules may make it worse. From what I can tell, Twitter can block any links or content it wants. Period. They have the final say. If you don’t like it, there is really no court of appeal as far as I can tell, other than public opinion. I honestly didn’t expect to get back on apart from buying a new web domain name. I’m glad something worked.

If you are a blogger or have a website, I hope this doesn’t happen to you. It can. I didn’t even know this could happen. Now I do. It is sad and disturbing that we spend much of our lives online guarding ourselves from those who might harm or defraud or troll us. If you see anything weird going on when you visit my site, let me know. You can be sure it is not intentional. I still love all that you can do and find on the internet. But it’s a far cry from when I first downloaded Mosaic and discovered the wonders of the web. I think those of us who still see this as a place for dialogue and discovery will have to fight to keep it that way. I’ve always said this site is about promoting conversations about the good, the beautiful, and the true. Perhaps what can keep us going against all the weirdness is the belief that somehow, it is the good, the true, and the beautiful that will endure.

Immigration and the Way of the Heart

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. –Ephesians 2:11-13, NIV

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” Zechariah 7:9-10

When you saw the word “immigration,” did your blood pressure go up? This is one of those issues it is not polite to discuss during social occasions at the risk of tempers flaring. In what follows I don’t want to get into policy or current controversies, and I hope you won’t try to debate them here. Likewise, I should warn that this is a bit of “inside baseball” primarily written for those who share my Christian commitments. I hope others will read to see how at least one Christian might think through such things.

The impetus for this post has been reflection over the last couple weeks on a sermon preached by one of our pastors on Zechariah 7, which includes the second biblical quote above. It made me think particularly about what our heart attitudes are toward the immigrant, and others on the margins of our society. These often are most vulnerable to oppression. They can be exploited, abused, feared, hated, excluded. Instead God commands justice, mercy, and compassion.

My thoughts went to the first passage and others like it, that give a very simple reason why. If in no other way, spiritually, we were once in the same place–strangers and aliens, fatherless, and hopeless; and through the cross of Christ, we have been adopted as God’s children, welcomed into God’s family, and included in God’s people–citizens of the kingdom rather than aliens.

It is hard for me to fathom as I reflect on God’s unfathomable love how our hearts can be gladdened and warmed and filled with joy because of the reality of God’s extravagant welcome; and hardened toward the immigrant and the refugee. It seems to me akin to being extravagantly forgiven and unwilling to forgive. Someone has observed about Jesus teaching about forgiveness that we need to choose which universe we will live in–a forgiveness universe or a judgment universe. I would suggest that likewise, we cannot live in a universe of extravagant welcome and simultaneously a universe of fear, resentment, hate, and exclusion. Choosing the latter in each case robs us of the joy and freedom of being God’s forgiven and included children.

None of this is to say what our immigration policies should be. Clearly they need to change, which is perhaps the only thing both political parties agree upon. What I want to raise is what orientation of the heart, what habits of the heart shape how we approach these discussions. Do we begin with fear or suspicion or even hatred of the other? Or do we begin with compassion, with welcome, and with justice. Many refugees are actually desperate. A number are actually fellow believers. In many cases they would face prison or death in returning to their country. Most people don’t leave home without good reason.

Many would say there are good reasons to be fearful or suspicious because some immigrants, documented or not, have committed crimes in our country.  Sure, but if we were to exclude every class of people in which some member has committed a crime, who of us would be left? Certainly prudence is called for by those who guard our borders. But this doesn’t need to conflict with a generous, welcoming spirit on the part of our people. The real question is what will be our fundamental posture, at least among those of us who say we follow Christ, toward the immigrant and the refugee? Will it be fear and suspicion, or will it be one of generous welcome that flows from how Christ has welcomed us? Might we experience in new ways the joy of welcoming Jesus in welcoming these people, the Jesus who began his earthly life as a refugee, along with Joseph and Mary?

Having it Both Ways

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Photo by kathryn “Eating cake” (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Perhaps it doesn’t puzzle me that we don’t like to talk about this. Remember when you were a kid and someone said, “you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” That almost seemed to be a dare to try to do both. Usually, this ended with you full of cake and wanting more and frustrated that your share is gone. Sometimes you end up filching someone else’s cake. And making yourself sick. And so the spiral goes.

So perhaps I don’t wonder why there isn’t more of a conversation about our highly sexualized and violent culture when we rail against sexual assault, threatening atmospheres, and gun violence. We really like our sex and our violence. Except when we don’t. Except when it hurts us or someone we love.

This is not an argument that those who are victims of these acts ever in the least deserve it. And I applaud those who have had the courage to say #MeToo, to testify against sexual offenders, to press for better work environments, and reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do harm.

But I wonder if we will make real progress as long as we celebrate a culture of “friends with benefits,” casual hookups, marketing that makes both women and men consciously obsessed with the appearance of their bodies? Will we make any progress until we understand how the use of pornography re-wires the brain, and undermines real relationships?

Will we make any progress as long as television and movies give us the vicarious thrill of the kill multiple times in an evening, even if most of us never go beyond that point? And how do violent video games rewire the brain? Nearly all the best selling video games, sold in large measure to young men, major in violence. I won’t make the argument that these videos cause violence, but I can’t help but believe that they are an ingredient in the toxic stew of our violent culture.

I suspect that steamy and casual sex is easier to write than a restrained relationship where love grows and deepens to real intimacy. I imagine that violence rivets the attention much more easily than non-violent means of seeking justice and resolving conflict. It’s faster, easier.

And I can’t help but wonder if it fosters the notion that it may be faster and easier in real life.

It also wouldn’t surprise me that some would label me hopelessly naive or prudish or an anachronism. Fair enough. But I would ask in reply, how do you explain why more young people have died of gun violence than in our overseas conflicts in recent years? How do you explain the pervasiveness of the revelations of sexual misconduct of all forms (yes, some may that more people feel empowered to speak out about it)? Why do universities wring their hands about campus sexual assault, much of it by acquaintances, and struggle to find ways to overcome “the walk of shame”?

There is an old saying that if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. I’d propose that when it comes to both sexuality and violence, two very potent forces, we cannot sow to the wind and reap a peaceful summer day at the beach. We want to, and often our media in its various forms prospers on our belief that we can have it both ways.

But I find myself wondering if we can…

 

I’m in the PhishTank

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I learned yesterday that Bob on Books is considered a “suspicious” or “malicious” site by Twitter. I can no longer post links to the site there, although I can make other posts.

A chat session with WordPress support (who I’ve always found helpful) indicated that I’ve been listed as a “phishing” site on PhishTank.com. Here is the link to the actual listing. WordPress itself found nothing on the site that is malicious or violates its terms of service and asserts that third parties can’t embed code or links on sites they host. No one who has visited my site has reported an actual problem. Phishing involves attempts to deceive you into providing sensitive information like passwords or credit cards under false pretexts in order to defraud. There is nothing like that on my site.

Apparently, on April 10, someone going by the username “prodigyabuse” listed Bob on Books as a phishing site. This individual has submitted over 11,000 sites. I found out that others “verified” that my site is a “phishing” site even though WordPress has examined the site and found nothing wrong, and it shows up trusted on Microsoft and Chrome browsers. I subsequently learned someone on a university computer couldn’t access my site, which I suspect is not an isolated incident. It’s likely that Twitter has based its “block” of content from Bob on Books on this site.

I’ve submitted “tickets” to both Twitter and PhishTank to rectify the situation. No response so far.

I find this deeply disturbing, because the effect of this is to suppress free speech. Apparently:

  • This can be done by a few individuals, working together or in sympathy.
  • There appears to be no actual verification by PhishTank or those who use their listings of the website. They rely entirely on user reports.
  • Site owners receive no direct notice of this action.
  • I could find no way to talk, even via chat to an actual person either on Twitter or PhishTank.
  • There appears to be no protection against this.

No doubt there are actual phishing sites, but as it stands now, the burden of proof is on site owners that they are not phishing, when they learn this is going on.

If your register as a user at PhishTank and go to my link and click, “something wrong with this submission” and follow the instructions you can submit a report they say they will take “very seriously.” We’ll see, but I’d be glad for the support.

I’m wondering why this happened. There seem to be a few possibilities:

  • One is that some people just don’t like what I’m posting, which is particularly troubling.
  • A second is some spammer I’ve blocked is having his/her revenge. There is a lot of spam commenting, some of which contain links to “phish-y” sites.
  • That leads to something more sinister. It does appear that it is fairly common for hackers to hide files deep inside the WordPress software and files. I found a number of articles like this one describing the problem. Both the software in my version of WordPress’s JetPack and my own virus and malware software do not show anything, and I don’t use plug-ins that are most vulnerable to this. There are expensive services that will clean your site, and more robust security options are available with more expensive WordPress plans. WordPress.com asserts that it is not possible for malicious entities to embed phishing code or links on blogs hosted on their site (which is the case with my blog), but leave it to their end users to deal with false reports. Seems like they would have more clout than I do.
  • Maybe this has to do with the cover photo (see above) I recently posted on my Facebook page, taken at our local aquarium. Maybe my fish tank picture got me in the PhishTank! Probably not but one must maintain some humor with these things.

Needless to say, this is unsettling. I love looking at fish in a tank or aquarium, but am not particularly crazy about being in one.

Stolen Identity

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“I’m a patriot, I will help the President build the Wall, I have an A+ rating with the NRA, I’m pro-life and I am a conservative Christian.” This is a mash-up of language I’ve heard in our most recent primary election and it deeply offends me. I feel like I’m a victim of identity theft.

My real beef is with the very last word of this statement. Why? I am a Christian. And I feel like my identity has been stolen, or at least misappropriated in statements like this.

Sure, while logically you can argue that such a statement doesn’t intend to identify all these positions with Christian orthodoxy, there is the implication that if you are the right kind of Christian, you will believe in these things and vote for this candidate.

Please understand. I do not question the Christianity of those who would affirm these things, or the genuineness of the faith of candidates who use this language. I even agree with them on some things. But I do not like the implication that this version of patriotism, or being pro-gun, or pro-life, or anti-immigrant is what those who are truly Christian will embrace at the ballot box.

Sure, I get it. “Conservative” Christians are perceived as a significant constituency for a particular political party. And for the person wanting to get elected, winning the favor and the votes of this constituency is what it takes.

What troubles me most are not the political positions of the candidates, which they have every right to advance, but the identification of those issues with being a real Christian. The reason I’m so troubled is that I have literally known people who have turned away from exploring the teachings of Jesus because they assume that they will need to embrace these issues along with Jesus. This language may win elections but it loses converts to the Christian faith. I work in ministry with college students and watch kids leaving churches over these things. I work as part of an international fellowship of Christians who often wonder if we love America more than the global kingdom of God.

I’m disturbed by how such language limits both the issues I can care about as a Christian, and how I think about those issues. I don’t like how this rhetoric makes at least a certain group of people captive to a political party. Instead of being able to support on some things and challenge on others, there is a party line that must be adhered to if you are to maintain influence and stay inside the party’s tent, and in some cases, the good graces of one’s congregation.

What do I want instead? I want people to stop using their “faith identification” to get votes. Certainly it is not wrong for voters to know what a person’s faith is, but the identification of Christianity with a set of political issues and positions needs to end. Every time politicians do this, they misappropriate the identity of Christians.

I also believe the church needs to stop allowing itself to be played by politicians. The truth is, we are being used by politicians for the one simple thing politicians care about–getting elected. We’ve allowed leaders inside and outside the church with a political agenda to have greater influence than the whole counsel of scripture from Genesis to Revelation that challenges the positions of every political party and calls us to a far more radical life.

Above all, I want both politicians and leaders in some segments of the church to stop stealing my identity as a Christian for political ends. What it all comes down to is that this is not why Jesus lived, died, and rose. However, the wedding of religion and political power was the major reason why he was killed. Will we continue to sacrifice Christ for political ends?

 

“Friendly Fire” at Your Neighborhood Church

“Please don’t talk to our children anymore.” These were the words to a scientist who believed in creation, the incarnation, the resurrection and the return of Christ. They came from an elder in his church. Why? Because he is a biologist who also believes in evolution and does not see his science and faith in conflict. He and his family never went to a church for more than a few weeks for the next ten years,

It’s a story I heard the other day. It’s a story, variations of which, I’ve heard for years. The professor who is suspect in her department because she is a Christian and suspect in her church because she is an academic. The bright high school student who asks too many hard questions when everyone else wants to talk about sex, and is shut down. The successful woman executive who is not permitted to exercise her leadership and management skills on the church board because only men can lead. Some of you can add your own painful stories. I hear a lot of those stories from students and faculty who have walked away from their churches and, in some cases, their faith.

Why do we do this to each other?

I don’t know but I wonder if we are so accustomed to fighting culture wars, battles for the courts, and fights to take back America that we keep fighting anyone who is different, even in the church. And sometimes we are so used to distorting the truth to achieve good ends that we  distort the Bible to justify our friendly fire.

It’s funny how we sometimes talk about finding a church “home.” Robert Frost had this definition of home: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It strikes me that in most places, when someone shows up at church, they are looking for home, for some kind of rest. Jesus says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, if you do the right things, believe the right things and oppose the wrong ones, I will give you rest. He says this is a place where you can come and lay your burdens down.

I’m not writing this as a rant against my church. Actually, it is a place that lets people be different. Political parties, skin color, what we wear, what we do for recreation, the kinds of songs we like to sing, vegetarians and meatatarians. We do hold some things in common–Jesus, the resurrection, trying to live by the Bible, caring for our neighborhood. Actually, it’s quite simple and unsensationally beautiful at times and we are far from being an exception to the rule.

I simply wish I didn’t have to hear stories like the scientist told. Recently, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods said they would stop selling assault rifles. He said they did not want to be part of the story of another school shooting. When will we decide that we don’t want to be part of a story of friendly fire at a church?

 

Is It Time For A New Name?

Factory near Gary, IN. Photo by Robert C. Trube. All rights reserved.

The other day I drove past this scene (actually as a passenger) in Gary, Indiana. Recently I’ve been reading a collection of narratives titled Voices from the Rust Belt. My journey through this region, and listening to these “voices” from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit and other cities leads me to wonder if it is time to retire that name. Is it time for a new name?

The name arose with the decline of the steel and manufacturing industries that had been the lifeblood of these cities. Thousands lost jobs and the impact rippled through the communities. Those who could moved away to find jobs. Populations declined, factories rusted away until torn down. Rust belt seemed an apt term.

I wonder if it still is. It’s not that many of those places still suffer the effects of those plant closures. But I also know that cities have redefined themselves in a variety of ways. Some, like Pittsburgh, have become hi-tech centers. Others, because of low overhead costs, have been ideal locations for business startups. Some manufacturers have remained, leaner and more competitive.

I’ve thought about alternative terms but they all seem schmaltzy or simplistic. More than that, they don’t capture the stories of each of these cities as they are now. So my proposal? Let’s stop talking about the Rust Belt and begin talking about Youngstown, and Cleveland, and Detroit and all the others on their own terms. Rust Belt is about the past. It’s time to talk about what each of these cities are…or could be.

I’d love to know what you think, and if you have a good name for this region.

Let’s End This War!

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Andrew Dickson White, President of Cornell, who contended there was a war between science and Christianity, Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia

This week on the blog I will be reviewing several books on science and Christianity. A theme that runs through all of these books is that science and Christian faith needn’t be in conflict. That is my own conviction as well. John Calvin, and others, have spoken about God revealing God’s self through two books, the Bible and the Creation. God has authored both, and they do not conflict with each other, properly understood.

The language of “warfare” came from two critics of Christianity, John William Draper, who wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Sadly, many Christians, rather than recognizing that many of the “conflicts” were simply ones of interpretation, were only too happy to join the battle, either arguing how science had gotten it wrong or offering forced explanations that shoehorned science into scripture, often resulting in both bad science and bad biblical interpretation.

Sadly, there are a number of people on both sides who have continued the conflict down to the present day. The cynic in me wonders how much money has to do with it, as key figures have built empires around fighting for creation or science. There is money to be made in perpetuating this war, as in many others. What troubles me is to see the casualties of this war. There are some who have turned their backs on a science that sometimes offers seemingly total explanations but cannot offer meaning and purpose. There are others, often who began as enthusiastic believers, were presented with the false dichotomy of choosing either faith or science, and seeing the beauty of science, turned away from their faith. Finally, I have friends, Christians in science, who often get shot at from both sides. Scientists question how they can be serious about their science if they believe, and believers question how they can be authentic in their faith if they do science.

Here are some suggestions I would make for those interested in a “cease fire” proposal:

For Christians:

  • I would start by reading your Bible more carefully. A good friend who is an evangelical and was an English major in college said, “I don’t read the Bible literally, but rather literarily.” Many of our conflicts have to do with trying to answer questions the biblical writers had no interest in answering. We don’t do our homework to understand what scripture might have meant to a people 2000 to 3000 years ago in very different cultural settings.
  • Resist the effort to try to “prove” Christian faith by science, when theories change and evolve. Also, if Christianity has to be proved by science, we end up suggesting that science is actually prior to and more important than our revealed faith. Far more constructive is to observe where Christian belief and scientific finds are consistent with each other.
  • It helps to understand that most actual science is very evidence driven, and not driven by some “godless agenda.” I have friends (a number are believers) who have literally gone to the ends of the world collecting data about changes in the earth’s climate, and documented effects of warmer climates on glaciers and the water they provide to communities, and are mystified when fellow believers accuse them of liberal political agendas. They are just doing research and reporting their findings, which are very concerning to them.
  • Instead of fearing conflict or getting uneasy when something doesn’t jibe with our beliefs, why not view this as a doorway to a greater understanding? The Reformation began when Martin Luther struggled to interpret Romans. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs. Instead of defending one’s current understanding against something in science that seems to challenge that understanding, why not ask of science, “tell me more” and really listen. And then keep studying and digging in the scriptures as well. The truth is we often are woefully illiterate in our knowledge of our faith.

And a few words on the science side:

  • The big one is to honestly acknowledge when you are making statements that arise not from your science but from beliefs or even axiomatic statements that cannot be scientifically demonstrated. Take off your lab jacket when you make these statements. It’s not wrong to make such statements. Even statements that disagree with Christian belief. Just don’t use the aura of science to add weight to them. It gives science a bad name.
  • Avoid reductionistic or totalizing statements that convey that your little slice of the scientific pie explains all reality. Truth is that this makes other scientists in other disciplines angry as well as those who believe in other, including religious, ways of knowing.

Perhaps for all of us some humility would help, and truthfully we don’t have to go far to find it. Our own disciplines should be enough. As a student of scripture, I have walls of books, many of which I’ve read, and have read and re-read the Bible cover to cover, and I’m constantly surprised both with new insights and new questions. Any honest scientist will say the same.

What I love, and I think all too rare, are the conversations where scientists and believers come together, not to fight, but to learn from each other. I know of conversations where environmental scientists and Christians who believe they have been entrusted by God to care for his good world learn from and teach each other. I can envision conversations where neuroscientists and Christian philosophers and theologians talk about the science of the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the soul. I’ve watched the collaboration of linguistic researchers and Bible translators in preserving languages that could be assimilated and lost. I’ve delighted to listen to astrophysicists describe the wonders of the cosmos as well as the things, like dark matter, that perplex them, and I share their perplexity as I meditate on Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? (NIV)

In all this incredible vastness where we are mere specks, how can it be that we are known by God–and yet we are!

I will not be enlisted for this war. Scientists are flesh and blood people and not the enemies we are to fight (Ephesians 6:12). Through history many great scientists have in fact been great believers. For example, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest, known as the father of the “Big Bang,” who used Einstein’s theory of relativity to show that the universe was not static but expanding, contrary to Einstein who argued for the static model. Later Einstein said Lemaitre’s theory was “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Why fight wars when you can have a conversation like that, one that at times was an argument, but eventuated in a larger understanding of our world? Let’s end this war!

Power, Passivity, or Partnership?

men-1979261_1920I’ve just returned from a regional leadership retreat with the team of leaders for the segment of collegiate ministry I work with in our part of the country. The team of which I am a part is led by a woman, with three men and four other women as team members. It is a gifted team of people highly dedicated to advancing on our ministry in university campuses. We all are committed to bringing our “A” game to this work and to our time with each other. I am a better leader of my particular area of ministry because of the other members of our team. My supervisor, who leads our team, is skilled at keeping our focus on “the main thing,” using our time well, and I have regular sought her counsel on situations where I need wisdom and another perspective.

The sad thing is that the team I describe is not possible in many ministries and church communities. I grieve, because I think of all that would be lost if my women colleagues weren’t at the table with me. One of my female colleagues has stretched my thinking about the use of digital tools to extend ministry into places we cannot physically go. Another has opened my eyes to ways to better work with ministry donors and to help the team I lead with that. I could go on and on.

My purpose in writing is not to send another volley into the hotly contested discussion about gender roles in the church. Many scholars and other writers have probably said all that may be said, and I don’t want to argue this further. To state what I think succinctly:  I believe gender distinctions are real, but that the patterns of dominance and subordination between genders are a consequence of the fall, and neither God’s intention in creation, nor within communities of the redeemed. I have deeply respected friends who think differently about these matters, and if you see things as they do, I’ll suggest what I say to them: let us pray for each other and continue to seek the light of God’s word.

What I wanted to do is share a few observations around two unhealthy places we often occupy and a vision for something better. I especially want to speak to other men (other than to express deep thankfulness to God for the women colleagues I work with, and my most important partner in life, my wife of nearly forty years). There are three words I want to reflect on: power, passivity, and partnership.

Power: Sadly, it is often a case of who has it, and who wants more of it, and our fears of losing it. I wonder if it is often the case for men that there is a fear that we may no longer be able to do things the way we’ve done if women are in the picture. What also strikes me is that when we try to hold onto power, we set up weird dynamics where parties try to control, while others try to manipulate or “game” the system. No one is particularly happy. Whenever I have relinquished power to others rather than fought for control, I find we are more “powerful” together than I could be by myself.

Passivity: One of the fears I’ve heard among men is that if women lead more, men will lead less and become passive. Male passivity is a problem at times, but men, I would like to suggest that it is our problem, and not that of women with gifts and insights they can exercise for the good of Christ’s people. Why must women step back for men to step forward; or men step back when women step forward? Why cannot we move forward together, spurring on one another?

Partnership: This leads me to the vision I would propose, one of partnership, of men and women leading together, encouraging, and allowing each of us to bring the best of what God has given us to advance the work of God. While our team was together, we studied 2 Kings 22, in which King Josiah orders renovations to the temple to encourage the worship of God, high priest Hilkiah finds and reads the book of the law, and prophetess Huldah confirms that Judah is facing judgment but that it will not come in Josiah’s lifetime because he humbled himself before God. The three subsequently lead the nation in revival and reform that lasts the lifetime of Josiah. We noticed what happened when these three came together, and that no one questioned the word of the Lord Hulda brought because she was a woman! There is something powerful and catalytic that happens when this team comes together around the word of God and the purposes of God.

I’ll touch on one other matter before I conclude, and that is the fear men express about sexual temptation if they work closely with female colleagues. I don’t think this is to be laughed at. But neither should our “stuff” as men stop women from the full exercise of gifts God has given. It’s our problem, not theirs. The truth is that both egalitarians and complementarians succumb to sexual temptation. While not temptation-proof, when we see those we work with as whole persons, fellow “kingdom professionals,” that serves as a powerful disincentive to even go the first step in one’s mind toward an illicit relationship. Of course, in the end, our daily dependence upon the grace of God must be the first and last word in these matters.

As in so many things, what we fear often keeps us from seeing and entering into what may be gained. To my brothers in Christ, I would say there is a richness that I hope you will discover. Finally, I would say thanks to my sisters in Christ, for all the ways you have stepped forward, and shown me what an exhilarating journey it can be to press into the call of the kingdom together.

The Billy Graham Century

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Publishers Weekly story called to my attention that this is Billy Graham’s centennial year. If his health holds, he will turn 100 on November 7, 2018. The article noted that there are new or updated books that will be released this year by scholars William Martin and Grant Wacker and more popular books by his grandson William and former Graham associate Lon Allison. Edit Blumhofer is working on a book on Graham’s use of gospel music at his crusades, and Ann Blue Wills will publish a work on the life of Ruth Bell Graham titled An Odd Cross to Bear. Martin’s book apparently will also explore the impact of Graham’s son Franklin on his legacy.

At a time when many are questioning whether evangelicalism has a future, or whether to identify as an evangelical, it is oddly fitting and paradoxical that this attention is being given to the figure who as much as anyone defined American evangelicalism. His educational journey traced his journey from fundamentalism to the beginnings of evangelicalism, leaving Bob Jones University after a year because of its legalism to attend Florida Bible Institute and then finishing his education at Wheaton College. He started out as an evangelist with high school ministry Youth for Christ and launched his first “crusade” in Los Angeles, gaining national attention due to William Randolph Hearst’s decision to “puff Graham.”

His crusades reached across denominational lines, drawing criticism from fundamentalists. He pioneered use of media with his Hour of Decision radio broadcasts (to which I listened growing up) and with his television broadcasts of crusades. He helped found Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism. He de-segregated seating at his crusades and included black leadership in his crusades as early as 1957. Joining with British preacher John R. W. Stott, they worked together to host the 1974 International Conference on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, propelling global efforts from every nation to every nation to advance the Christian message, making evangelicalism a global movement.

For better or worse, his close relationship with American presidents also established a pattern of engagement between evangelicals and politicians. It was clear in later years that he felt betrayed by Richard Nixon’s behavior in Watergate, including his profanity. They reconciled in later years. He spent extended times in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and prayed with every president from Truman to Obama. This was remarkable in a way after the rise of the Religious Right. It will be interesting to see the judgment of history on his involvement with Presidents.

Graham’s ministry had a shaping influence on my own life. His Hour of Decision broadcasts that we listened to every Sunday night during my childhood made it clear that there was a decision to be made about Christ, and that this was the most consequential decision in one’s life. While I did not “go forward” at one of his crusades, having made my “decision” at a Vacation Bible School at age 10, I saw him speak on seven occasions. The first was at the 1970 crusade in Cleveland at the old Cleveland Stadium, with a busload of kids from our church. On five occasions I heard him speak at InterVarsity’s Urbana Missions Conventions in 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1987. (Altogether, he spoke here on nine occasions. Here is a short video clip from his 1961 message). The last time I heard him speak was at the old Cooper Stadium in Columbus in 1993. I still have a poster from that in my office. When his associate evangelist Leighton Ford spoke in Youngstown, in the 1970’s, I was a counselor and the training they offered helped me in leading others to faith.

He continued to minister to my family even in retirement. My mother passed in 2010. My father was struggling with the loss and how to make sense of what was left of his life. In 2011, Graham published Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. My dad always had deeply respected Graham and he read the book over and over again and spoke of how much it helped him. My dad finished his own race in 2012 and Graham’s book helped him in his last couple years to finish well.

It remains to be seen the course the movement he nurtured will take in coming years. Historians and religious scholars will no doubt have differing opinions on his personal influence on that movement, and I suspect not all will be favorable. It’s the lot of the best of us to both hit our limits and prove our fallibility. Perhaps all any of us can do is to be found faithful in our callings. By this standard, Graham is finishing out his century well. Not too long ago, commenting on his Parkinson’s disease, he said,

“Someone asked me recently if I didn’t think God was unfair, allowing me to have Parkinson’s and other medical problems when I have tried to serve him faithfully. I replied that I did not see it that way at all. Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to him in trust and confidence.” (Source: 40 Courageous Quotes From Billy Graham)

Personally, while recognizing aspects of his life that might be criticized, at the end of the day, I find myself saying, “thanks be to God for Billy Graham.” I suspect for him, though, the only praise that matters is the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Update 2/21/2018: Little did I think five days ago when I published this post that we would be saying farewell to Billy Graham so soon. This morning, Billy Graham discovered the truth of the hope he preached for over 50 years and heard his Master’s “well done” as he passed through death to life everlasting.