The center of society in Deer Park, Washington, can be found at the massive Double Eagle Pawn shop where comes and goes a steady stream of hunting, fishing, and camping enthusiasts. Recently, I happened to be in Deer Park to visit family. I like Deer Park. It’s a quiet little town where most of the inhabitants behave like me (think introverts); they’re not exactly warm and friendly, though they usually mind their own business (a character trait that qualifies them for sainthood in my book).
Anyhow, the main tourist attraction (my grandson) was taking a nap, which prompted me to go downtown to check out the Double Eagle. The Double Eagle has an inventory of guns that would turn third-world armies green with envy. I’m not exactly a gun connoisseur, but I do know my way around a Remington 700; having hunted with one for decades. Imagine my delight to see several 700s in stock. I selected one in a caliber I’d been searching for and brought it to the man behind the counter. (You heard that right, the guns are on display for anyone to handle just like lingerie in a department store … not that I handle much lingerie.) I asked him if I could buy the gun and take it home, even though I live out of state. He said absolutely not. I could only buy it through a gun dealer in the state where I live. The gun would have to be delivered directly to the gun dealer in my home state.
Before I go any further with this story, I should let you know that revealing one’s identity as a California resident visiting certain parts of Washington State is like wearing a Giants hat to a game at Dodger Stadium–there are risks. A great many Washingtonians harbor animosity towards California and Californians. One reason we are resented is because many California expats have moved to Washington State and driven up the cost of housing. Apparently we Californians tend to pay more for homes than Washington residents. This drives up housing prices and makes it unaffordable for many locals. There are other reasons as well, but we won’t list them right now.
Getting back to my conversation with the gun barista at the Double Eagle. I told the clerk I know a gun dealer in California who might be willing to work with me to buy the gun. An elderly gentleman overheard our conversation and joined in. Here is how the conversation went:
“Ha, do they still let people buy guns in California?” said the elderly man, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Yes, but they have restrictions on some guns,” I said.
“I have a friend who tried living in California,” said the elderly man. “He wanted to buy a gun there once but it was too much of a hassle.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” I said.
“You know what my friend says about California now?” said the elderly man with anger smoldering in his eyes. “He says California can go f#@! itself!”
I was taken aback and felt that he was sending me a clear message—you Californians ain’t welcome here. At that the elderly man stomped off before I could assure him that I had no intention of buying an overpriced house in Deer Park. I wanted to assuage any fears he might harbor that I would move to Deer Park and open a yoga studio that would gentrify his rustic little town. I especially wanted to assure him that I was not an elitist who would transform his neck of the woods into a haven for hipsters. If only I could have convinced him that I have little in common with those loons in LA and San Francisco (other than a love for cutting-edge ethnic food). But he was forever gone from my life.
In all fairness to that elderly gentlemen who expressed himself so eloquently, he does have a point. We’re a bit arrogant in California. We have fantastic weather, a massive economy, a gorgeous coast, fantastic mountains, sublime deserts, and chic cities. California is also the creative center of the universe. We attract people from all over the world. We seem to love change, as long as it is our kind of change. We love to build communities that look like photos in Sunset Magazine. When our citizens move to cities in other states, they have a tendency to want to make their new community just like the community they left in California. I’m beginning to understand that this approach might not be the best for locals and expats.
The same phenomena happens in many churches. For example, some churches do not ordain women. They take this stand in good faith based on interpretation of certain parts of the Bible. Yet it is not uncommon for people to join such churches and later on pressure them to change their bylaws to allow the ordination of women. Such conflicts can get out of control and cause tremendous discontent as well as harm the example of Christ’s church in the community.
Need a less contentious example? Most churches do not handle poisonous snakes during worship. As much as I might enjoy such a spectacle, it would be wrong of me to pressure my church leaders to incorporate the handling of poisonous vipers as a test of faith during our Sunday liturgy.
Perhaps mature Christians have an obligation to explore the beliefs and heritage of a prospective church BEFORE they join so that later on they do not feel compelled to take it upon themselves to cause a big brouhaha in a quest for change. Granted, some churches and denominations need to change the way they operate. But I suspect that many people who take it upon themselves to affect change in a church have not been led by God to do so. They do it because some issues get under their skin or because they are passionate about a new way of doing things.
On the other hand, established church members who want to obey God by welcoming newcomers have an obligation to recognize that the influx of new people usually means change will eventually follow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those guys who loathe all change. I do not think all change is bad. But neither do I believe all change is good … especially if the peddlers of change have not shown respect for things that long-timers on the scene hold dear. I’m just saying!
Some might accuse me of an obsequious manner when I’m at work. “Obsequious” is a highbrow word for brown-nosing. I resent the implication. After all, it’s not like I mow my supervisor’s lawn on weekends. (She prefers that I wash her car.) Aside from my “obsequious” endeavors on the job, I do indeed appreciate the work itself. Work provides a strong sense of purpose and human dignity. God himself worked when he created our world. God gave humanity work that included purpose right from the start. Rick Warren wrote a famous book titled “The Purpose Driven Live.” Agent Smith in the Matrix told Neo: “There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose, for as we both know, without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us, purpose that connects us, purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines us, purpose that binds us.” I don’t agree with all of Agent Smith’s assertions, but he does make a valid point about the significance of purpose.
During a Sunday sermon not long ago, I daydreamed about work, purpose, and retirement. (Before you judge me for not paying attention to the sermon you should know that the Bible says old men will dream dreams.) As someone with one foot in the workplace and one almost in retirement, I am beginning to understand how disconcerting it can be when the routine of daily work begins to fade away. For some folks, it gets abruptly yanked away. Advanced age, declining health, organizational restructuring, family issues, a host of reasons can move a person from productive employment to a completely different stage of life we call retirement. It can feel like the death of one’s purpose.
I used to look forward to retirement with joyful anticipation. It would be a chance to do what I want with my time. But the reality of advancing years and creeping problematic health issues that threaten to catapult me into retirement have made me realize how much work is essential for survival . . . or I should say the survival of purpose. Aging has revealed something startling about me: I was not ready to give up on dreams of advancing my career or doing something great in service to God, though the reality of life’s limitations say otherwise. I am not in absolute control of my destiny. The fear of losing purpose is a terrible thing. You see, I felt certain God was taking me in a specific direction . . . the direction I wanted to go. It turns out that was not the case. (Go figure.) Accepting this reality has been a classic study in denial and resistance. Here’s the thing: The more I deny and resist, the more painful it is.
Just because I can’t see what lies beyond a fading responsibility to rise and go to work each day does not mean there is nothing more to do or be, no purpose. In other words, this is one of those times in life where faith is either real or lip service. Ecclesiastes 3 talks about the seasons of life under the heavens. When one season ends another begins, and the new season can be the opposite, or very different, from what we did in the previous. And the thing about seasons is we do not always get to pick when they begin and end. Ultimately, when the time comes to hang up one’s work shoes we discover if we really have the peace in our heart we claim to have as Christians. I believe the purpose we crave will arise somewhere other than at the job site . . . if we have a malleable heart. We are not a piece of unused furniture gathering dust in God’s garage. Or so I hope.
Those on the political right viewed Bundy as a folk hero who stood bravely against the heavy hand of an overreaching federal government. Those on the political left viewed Bundy as a moocher (oh the irony) refusing to pay for grazing fees like all other ranchers using federal land. But just as things were beginning to settle down in the Nevada desert, Bundy, while answering questions at a news conference, launched into his personal views on the plight of African Americans on government assistance, likening their plight to idleness, government subsidy (ironic), jail, abortion, picking cotton, and slavery. I don’t know if there was a legitimate moral message somewhere in the midst of Bundy’s observations on race and government assistance, but the word’s chosen and his delivery were not politically correct or helpful. In other words, he indeed sounded like a racist. This left those on the political right scrambling to distance themselves from Bundy the person without distancing themselves from the issue of an overreaching federal government. Those on the left used the opportunity of Bundy’s words to discredit Bundy, his cause, and all who supported his cause.
Skip ahead a couple weeks to April 29, 2014, and the saga of Donald Sterling, owner (or possibly a soon to be former owner) of the LA Clippers. The NBA banned Sterling from all NBA activities for life because of news that he had expressed his desire to a lady friend that she not bring black friends to Clippers games. His comments, if accurately portrayed, reflected a racist mentality. Swift public outrage led some advertisers to drop the LA Clippers. Talk of a player’s strike was bandied about. Many players, former players, team owners, representatives, sports media personalities, and fans praised the NBA commissioner’s swift and stern decision to ban Sterling from basketball. Now Sterling can only watch basketball on television. Yet this writer (always the skeptic) wonders if NBA leadership acted for purely moral reasons or because this incident stood to cost the league substantial revenue. If you have the ability to take away a significant chunk of an organization’s money, that organization’s leadership will find a way to take action to staunch the financial bleeding. This is an example of market forces (and politics) at work on a moral issue. Of course the opposite can also happen: if you promise to infuse a lot of money (with strings attached) into an organization, the leadership of the organization might be enticed to take no action or take an immoral action.
As an aside, the response of the NBA in the Sterling case is the proverbial slippery slope. In the future, what is to stop an organization from firing someone or canceling their contract because they hold unpopular views on gay marriage, global warming, suffrage (just kidding) or whatever the moral issue du jour? In such an environment it becomes easy to slip across the line from opposing a legitimate immorality to persecution of people with legitimate beliefs of conscience. Go back and re-read 1984. I guess we all need to make sure our thinking is right.
The morally superior attitude of many who responded to the words of Bundy and Sterling made me uncomfortable. Why? Because they view those who engage in this loathsome sin as irredeemable, people who should be completely discarded. But the Bible tells us it is possible to renew our minds. People can change. With God’s help, a racist can eliminate racism from his heart. And yet many who decry Bundy and Sterling come off like these two men have no hope of mercy and forgiveness.
As for Bundy and Sterling, they have encountered a hard reality about modern society: “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.”
What should I do if my Border Collie assures me that he will stop stealing bags of potato chips from the kitchen counter when I am out of the house . . . besides ask my doctor to adjust my medication? Should I blindly trust my innocent-looking quadruped? Sure, Border Collies have a reputation as an intelligent breed, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be shifty. In this case, blind faith in my canine friend’s self-control would probably lead to disappointment.
An article titled “Why Partisans Can’t Kick the Hypocrisy Habit,” by Alan Greenblatt, says:
“Although many people like to describe themselves as independent, partisanship has become an important aspect of identity. Some are more loyal to their partisan leanings than their own church, says University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell.”
Campbell’s statement about the unholy union between personal identity and partisan ideology is fascinating and disconcerting. By allowing partisanship to become too much a part of our identity we run the risk of being blind to truth. Such blind loyalty can also happen in the church. It used to be that many churchgoers were doggedly committed to their denomination. Some were committed to a particular denomination because multiple generations in their family had been members of the denomination. I’ve known Catholics who strongly identify with Catholicism because their parents and grandparents were Catholic. The same undaunted loyalty occurs in other denominations, as well. Sometimes the basis for the loyalty lies along justifiable criteria such as doctrine or statements of faith. Still, there is an interesting thing happening in the modern church: I see more and more people strongly identifying themselves with independent churches. Of course here is nothing inherently wrong with independent churches. Many of the current denominations were probably independent churches at one point. But many Christians can’t articulate WHY they identify so strongly with independent churches. The truth is there are positive and negative aspects of both independent and denominational churches. But I digress (apparently I’ve allowed ecclesiology to become part of my identity).
The point is that we have a potent, and not always healthy, tendency to let church become part of our identity. I know steadfast Christians who continue to attend ailing churches because those churches are members of their preferred denomination. If they switched to another denomination it would be akin to tearing out part of their personality. A good many Christians attend churches because they strongly identify with the city or neighborhood in which their church is embedded; this is usually a good thing, but not always as we can become shortsighted. But my question is this: At what point does our commitment to a church become blind faith?
Don’t get me wrong, most of the time commitment is a good thing, especially given the church hopping that goes on these days (guilty). But it seems wise to always retain at least a small measure of skepticism when it comes to the church structures and styles we hold dear. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming the dreaded “H” word–Hypocrites. How so? Answer: If we allow too much of our identity to become connected to our local church or denomination we run the risk of blinding ourselves to institutional fails and the flip flopping of our values. After all, church leaders come and go. Styles change. Doctrines and statements of faith can be subject to the whims of new leaders.
Here’s an example from the world of politics. I recall how multitudes of political progressives were vehemently antiwar during the Bush administration. Many of those same progressive partisans are now silent or openly supportive when President Obama gives orders to take military actions. On the other hand, many political conservatives (formerly hawkish) sound almost like antiwar protesters now that President Obama is giving the orders. If we are not on guard, this type of blind faith leading to the compromise of our values can also occur in the church. Don’t be blind. Connecting our identity to Christ is a safer way. Christ doesn’t change.