A Doorkeeper for God

   One of the verses that I often remember is Psalm 84:10.  I don’t always remember where to find it, but n this age of computers, if I can remember the words, the reference is never far away.  Here the singers in the temple, the Sons of Korah, and remember that even those with humble jobs rejoice in the service that they give to God saying…

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

    Today on Facebook, my friend Jim Jenson posted this poem about the same sort of thing as a remembrance of one of our seminary professors, Dr. Luke Keefer (photo, right).  This poem was one that meant a lot to Dr. Keefer, and, I think, may become one of mine as well.  I would like to note that I do not have any official permission to reprint this here, but you can also find it many places on the Internet.  

    Sam Shoemaker (photo, left) was the founder of Faith at Work at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City, in 1926. He was also one of the spiritual leaders who helped draft the original 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and was a spiritual teacher to Bill W., AA’s co-founder. (from istandbythedoor.com)

I Stand at the Door

By Sam Shoemaker (from the Oxford Group)

I stand by the door.
I neither go to far in, nor stay to far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper’
So I stand by the door.

Trayvon, George, and the Church

    I wrote Sunday’s message, “The Test”, long before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced and yet, the parallels between these events and scripture reading were worth noting.

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) a religious lawyer seeks to use Jesus to assure himself that he is good enough to go gain eternal life.  The lawyer and Jesus agree that the two fundamental criteria are 1) to love God and 2) to love your neighbor, but that isn’t good enough and so he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”  In the time of Jesus, rabbis had differing opinion over who qualified to be a “neighbor” and these opinions ranged from friends and family, up to including anyone who was Jewish.  This man was hoping, even expecting, that Jesus’ opinion would be similar so that he could declare himself “good enough.” But Jesus goes an entirely different direction.  Jesus tells this story of a man who was brutally robbed, beaten and left for dead in the wilderness only to be rescued by a Samaritan.  
For many of us, this may also require some explanation.
    Long before the birth of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another with a deep and abiding hate.  Regardless of whose version of history you believe, hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews dated back to the Old Testament, perhaps a thousand years or more.  Over the centuries, each side had attacked the other and had desecrated or burned the others’ temple.   A great many had been killed on both sides.  The only reason that the two groups were not fighting one another in the time of Jesus was that the Roman army was there to make sure that they didn’t. 
    In this environment of hatred, Jesus tells a story in which the Samaritan enemy was the hero and tells the man that even his enemy is his neighbor.  Jesus’ command is to “Go and do likewise.”  As followers of Jesus the  command to “Go and do likewise”  instructs us to show mercy to people we’ve never met, to share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, to help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even to people whom we consider to be our enemies.  It was a tough pill for that lawyer to swallow and it isn’t any easier for us today.  The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been, and will always be, difficult to put into practice.
    If we measure the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin by this standard we find that everyone failed.  Both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin failed when they chose to be suspicious and hostile and to engage in a brutal brawl on the ground rather than try to explain, discuss or walk away.  Both men assumed the other was his enemy.  The news media when they looked first for sensational headlines before reporting the facts.  Others failed because they were looking for an enemy and assumed that this violence was somehow different, that this murder was somehow more notable than the other thousands of young people who have been victims of violence since Trayvon Martin died. 
    Finally, the church failed.  We have known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children.  We know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.  And yet, even now, in the midst of this tragedy, the followers of Jesus Christ, both black and white, look to place blame and to see an enemy in others, rather than demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  For the church, this case cannot be about who is right or who is wrong.  A wedge has been driven between two groups who already saw the other as the enemy.  Instead of arguing over who was in the right, we must find ways to avoid this sort of violence that kills young men and women every day in Sanford, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and all across our nation.  We must find ways to teach the things that Jesus commanded us to teach.  We must show mercy to people we’ve never met, share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even people that we consider to be our enemies.  We are called to be agents of healing instead of division.  We must love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and yes, we must love our neighbors.
Each one of us can make the world a better place if only we would, “Go and do likewise.”

Why this Conservative Evangelical Stopped Supporting the Death Penalty


    I used to support the death penalty.  After all, that’s what good Christians did, right?  Murderers received what they had measured out to others.  The death penalty was in the Bible and that was good enough for me.  But as the years went by, I began to wrestle with facts and ideas that didn’t fit.  It took time, years, even decades before I realized that I was changing my mind.  Even then, as a member in, and then as a pastor of, conservative congregations, I didn’t talk much about it. 

    I was troubled as I wondered how grace and mercy were served by the death penalty.  I was also troubled as I heard more about the costs of a death penalty conviction.  I suppose the last straw was when I first heard about the number of convictions being thrown out as DNA testing was first being used in the legal system.  Over the years, the evidence piled up until I had to surrender a notion that I once thought was reasonable.  I am not any different than I used to be.  My political and religious leanings are not significantly different than they ever were but I now believe that it is both logical and reasonable to oppose the death penalty from both a practical and a religious point of view.  Here’s why…
The Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent–Crime statistics in places where there is a death penalty are not statistically different from places where there is not.
Cost – It costs more to incarcerate a death row inmate.  Prisoners convicted under a death penalty statute are granted mandatory appeals and that process is expensive.  Estimates are that a death penalty inmate costs 2 to 5 times more over his or her lifetime than one who is incarcerated for life.
Fairness and Justice – The scriptural standard of evidence, particularly for murder, was from the beginning (Deuteronomy 17), two eyewitnesses.  In our modern world, having two witnesses is rare.  Mistaken identity is now one of the leading causes of error in our legal system.   Add a host of other errors, and suddenly a lot of people find themselves wrongly convicted.  For the last decade or so, an average of 18 death row residents per year were cleared by DNA evidence.  It’s so bad, that nationwide, a Columbia University study found serious errors in 68% of all death penalty cases and 2 out of 3 death penalty cases were overturned on appeal.  Of those overturned, 82% were retried on lesser charges.  Granted, no system is foolproof, but when ours is so messed up that we get it wrong 2 out of 3 times, its time to try something else.
Consistency – The church is usually among those who proclaim the sanctity of all life and declare to the world how God loves all people.  If we really believe that, then why is the life of a murderer not just as sacred?  Does God love murderers less? 
Grace, Forgiveness and Redemption – If we believe (and I do) that the Gospel message is all about grace, forgiveness and redemption, how do we justify the state sponsored killing of incarcerated criminals?  Where’s the grace and forgiveness in that?  How can God do a work of redemption in someone’s life when they’re already dead?  If we believe that God can change the hearts of human beings, then why are we so quick to assume that these men and women are unredeemable?
    As I wrestled with these questions, I realized that I didn’t have any answers that could make my continued support of the death penalty make any logical or spiritual sense.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a part of me that thinks the perpetrators of particularly horrible crimes shouldn’t die in some particularly painful way.   
What it means, I think, is that I’m beginning to understand the difference between retribution and justice.

Called to a Different Path


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

    I am a Cleveland Indians fan.  I follow the Indians, not because they their winning record (obviously), but by accident of geography. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to high school in Akron, and my first job after college sent me to Cleveland for ten years.  As a Cleveland fan, Boston is considered to be an evil empire second only to the New York Yankees.  This week’s attack on the Boston Marathon (a very different thing than baseball) stirs in me the sort of protective feelings that siblings have for one another.  Feelings such as, “Nobody messes with my brother but me.” We don’t yet know who committed this horror, but the reaction of most Americans is, like mine, anger.  This is, I think, a natural and instinctive reaction, but a dangerous one as well.  As Christians, we need to carefully gauge our reactions so that our emotions do not draw us away from the path we have been called to follow.
    Anger is not evil.  Nor is it wrong or sinful to feel angry, but how we allow anger to motivate us, in what direction we allow anger to push us, may well be.  Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a war with Japan.  Anger over the attacks of September 11th provided support for wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.  These may, or may not, be proper if we judge them as a means of seeking justice or resisting aggression, but we cross a line when we allow hatred and revenge to become our motivation.
    As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe, as some of my friends do, that we have been called to a path of non-violence or pacifism.  I do believe, however, that we have been called to a different path, a direction different than our instincts alone would lead us.
    In Leviticus, a book often noted for its violence, we find a warning that revenge will lead us astray.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”  Leviticus 19:18
 
    But what if the perpetrator of this horror is not “among our people” but someone else?  Well, Jesus had something to say about that…
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    This is hard.  Jesus wants us to do good to people who insist upon doing us harm.  Why?  Every fiber of my being wants to hit back when I am hit, to hurt the guy that hurts my family and to put the smack-down whoever did this thing to the people of Boston.  But that isn’t what Jesus had in mind.  Our calling is to a different path.  If you read the rest of the passage I just interrupted we get a few more details…
 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-28
    This is hard.  Why should we do good to those who seek to harm us?  Why should we be merciful?  Because we are called to follow a different path, a radical path, a path that calls us to love not only those who love us back, but everyone, whether they love us or not.  We are called to love the way that Jesus loved.
    Paul echoes these same feelings in his letter to the church in Rome and summarizes it by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
    I don’t think that any of this means that we cannot protect ourselves or seek justice, only that we must guard ourselves from seeking revenge and retribution instead of justice, and being driven by hatred and vengeance instead of mercy and compassion.  
This isn’t the place our instincts would lead us.
We are called to follow a different path.

Seeing God in the World Around You

Where have you seen God at work in your world this week?   
    I try to remember to ask this question each week during our worship service in order to help each of us (myself included) to be more aware and to really look for what God is doing all around us.  Our God is not a passive God who sits in heaven and watches events unfold here on earth.  Instead, he is a God who loves us and is constantly busy shaping people and events in order to accomplish his will.  I was reminded of that this past week.
    Recently, I was invited to speak and participate at a Walk to Emmaus weekend retreat.  While the retreat (this past weekend) lasted from Thursday until Sunday afternoon, I was unable to be there for all of it because of a funeral and other church and family obligations.  Even so, it was chillingly evident (chilling evident – in this case means that it made a shiver run up and down my spine) that God had a plan.  The Walk to Emmaus is a ministry with which Patti and I have been involved for many years.  Nearly every time that Patti and I have participated in these events, we have seen times when God has placed very specific people in specific places for a specific reason.    This weekend God was able to use me in this way.
    The Walk to Emmaus is a three day retreat where the “pilgrims” journey closer in their relationship to Christ (there isn’t much real walking – except to lunch).  On this journey they hear sixteen talks about a variety of basic Christian teachings.  This weekend, the talk that I gave was on Friday morning and as such was among the first few talks that the pilgrims heard.  Typically, this early in the weekend, the pilgrims don’t know each other very well, they don’t know the speakers very well, they are still unsure what to expect and as a result are still pretty cautious in their attitudes and reactions.  Still, God placed me at the right place at the right time. 
    In my talk, I told a part of my life story.  I told a bit about how God had led me from a career in engineering to serving in full-time ministry.  I told how God spoke to Patti and me and let us know that he had other plans for our lives.  After I was finished, I was approached by a man who was amazed at the things that I had said, not because my experience was unique or amazing but because, as he put it, “It sounded as if you were reading my life story.”  In their table discussion afterward, he had wept and asked the other men at his table how I had known so much about his life.   
Obviously, I didn’t.   
    This particular retreat was originally scheduled for last fall and the talk that I gave was supposed to be delivered by Rev. Ed Eberhart from the Barnesville First Christian Church.  Since there were not enough people registered, the entire event was postponed.  When the new dates were announced, Pastor Ed discovered that he had a conflict and so, at the last minute, the director of the weekend went looking for a replacement on short notice… and found me.
    This is how God works.  Months before I had any idea what I would be doing in March, God had a plan.  God shaped the events of last weekend so that two men, total strangers, would meet, and in the process an entire roomful of men would discover that God loves and cares for each of us with a love beyond measure.  What’s more, God shaped the events of last weekend so that one man could rediscover God’s love and find healing and hope.
    God is always at work in the world around us.  We will see Him if we will only take the time to look.

Where have you seen God at work in your world this week? 

Would Jesus be burning the Koran?

So what do you think of Rev. Terry Jones?  
     Jones is the pastor of the Dove Outreach Center (a church of around 50 members) near Gainesville, Florida.  This is the guy that wants to hold a book burning party and as mundane an idea as that may seem, he doesn’t want to burn pornography or even evil Rock-n-Roll lyrics.  Instead, his church has been in the news for organizing what they call “International Burn-a-Koran Day.”  This has caused a furor in the U.S. and around the world.  General Petraeus, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has asked that this not proceed because of the risk that it will add to those who are fighting in parts of the world where Islam is the predominant religion.  President Obama has asked that this not proceed and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made a personal call to ask that this event be cancelled.  So far, Rev. Jones has only conceded to “postpone” the event.
Admittedly, there are a host of political and practical reasons for stopping this.  Under our constitution such activity is undoubtedly legal, but this media furor has left me asking a different question, “What’s the point?”  I understand that, theologically, the Dove Outreach Center subscribes to a Pentecostal view which sees the world in a spiritual war between good and evil.  What I don’t understand is what they hoped to accomplish by burning a pile of Islamic holy books.  If their intent was to anger Muslims around the world then it worked.  If their intent was to gain notoriety for their small church, then I suppose their plan worked but I wonder if this is the kind of attention that they intended.  In particular though, I wonder how staging “International Burn-a-Koran Day” was supposed to gain ground in this spiritual war between good and evil.
    Paul said that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) it seems obvious that “you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar” but beyond that, insulting pagan believers is not what has been modeled for us as followers of Jesus Christ.  Paul didn’t tell the idol worshipping Athenians that they were stupid nor did he try to destroy any of their statuary.  Instead, he complimented them on their religiosity and then told them about the one true God.  Jesus didn’t curse sinners and disparage their false religions, instead he loved them, invited them in and shared meals with tax collectors, prostitutes and others considered by their society (and their church) to be outcasts and untouchable.   Jesus had compassion on these people even though doing so came at a significant cost to himself.  In fact, Jesus condemned the church of his day because of their lack of compassion for others.
    As far as I can see, the battle plan for spiritual warfare that Jesus left for his followers was both counter-cultural and counter intuitive.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 44)  Jesus built relationships with lost people by showing them mercy and my being kind, loving and compassionate.  Paul won a hearing for the good news of Jesus Christ by being civil and by demonstrating respect for those with whom he disagreed.  The way I see it, our battle is with evil, not with Muslims or anyone else.  We are at war with Satan, but not with people.  The path to victory laid out by Jesus is not the path of hatred but a path of love, mercy, kindness, compassion and respect.
    There are a host of political and practical reasons why Rev. Jones and his church should reconsider “International Burn-a-Koran Day” but far beyond any of those reasons lays this one:
I just don’t see Jesus in it anywhere.