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Death Row and Clergy

This is upsetting to me.

Here is the situation as I understand it. Clergy of all stripes have been allowed to visit death row inmates before their moment of doom. A man or woman dying has been granted this ability, to have a religious leader or figure with them in the moments when the state exercises the ultimate power it has, to kill one of its citizens.

This ministerial presence historically involves touching — laying on of hands, and speaking words of prayer, perhaps even oil depending on the religious tradition invoked up until the last possible moment. Of course there are limitations to this when hanging, firing squad, beheading, or gas chamber are used. But even so, historically, clergy are there giving comfort as long as possible and safe.

For reasons I can only speculate about, the State of Texas decided in 2019 this moment of comfort should be revoked. At first it was a complete revocation denying the presence of any clergy of any kind regardless of the request of the individual being executed. Eventually this was softened and a religious leader could be present but was not allowed to speak or touch the person about to die.

The Supreme Court of the United States is today hearing oral arguments against this practice. It is shocking to me how often my state appears on the docket for SCOTUS of late, and I don’t like it. But what I really don’t like is this law. This is not even about the death penalty itself. I am personally against the death penalty but I affirm the state’s rights to do it. The problem is this is cruel and beneath us and it is very unsettling to think anyone who is in charge of public policy in our state would have this as a go-to impulse. It is a crime against conscience and a violation of the free exercise of religion to continue such barbaric retribution.

Click this picture of Pastor Dana Moore to read the Washington Post’s excellent story about this

I do not deny the people who are executed are people who have done horrible things and committed great acts of violence. That goes without saying. They are people who denied others their dignity and their humanity. I understand that. And they are being punished for it. We are not criminals and we are not psychopathic killers with no feeling or touch of humanity. We must be better than those we are ostensibly killing in order to protect society. It is about us, not them.

Do better Texas. Do better.

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We Could Be (or at least think about) Heroes

All Saints Day is not really a holiday Baptists embrace, but perhaps we should.

No, I don’t mean veneration of the seemingly countless number of Patron Saints who litter some calendars but I mean the point of it all, which is to remember the heroes and seek to emulate their lives, or at least the admirable characteristics of their lives. All of us have clay feet, and no hero or heroine is perfect; and so Churchill did indeed have racist and elitist tendencies yes, but he probably saved the entire world from tyranny; and so to Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man with certain weaknesses that speak to a lack of discipline yet he spoke truth to power and showed us how to combat systemic oppression, and so too Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a woman who leaned far too much to the left for my taste but she was a decent human being who stood up for the rights of those without a voice.

Heroes and heroines are important (and note, I often use the generic ‘heroes’ for both sexes) and All Saints Day is a kind of moment when we can think about how are our heroes are.

I wrote a blog several years ago about some of my professional heroes (CLICK HERE TO READ). Today, I am thinking about another kind of hero; those people who are so desperately needed in our world today who go to work everyday and rarely get told thank you, or who often get the opposite — they see the worst side of humanity. Here is my list, and it is far from exhaustive. It is also imperfect in that within each group of heroes there are baddies — those who are not worthy of their calling and who take advantage of their position. I am obviously not talking about these people, but rather the other ninety-five percent.

Those Who Serve

This is a big category, and I use it loosely to describe those who wear or have worn uniforms and put themselves in harms way for the benefit of our society. This includes the armed forces, law enforcement, firefighters, and a whole host of other people who take huge gambles and risks every day so I can live in safety and freedom. I am a civilian and enjoy the civilian life, and cherish that our nation is led by a civilian government. Nevertheless, I recognize that it is those who serve who guarantee this very way fo life. These people are heroes.

Those Who Heal

Nurses, EMT’s, Doctors, P.A.’s, Pharmacists, counselors — I’m looking at you. We could learn a lot about our role in society if we would listen to those who see us when we are sick, hurting, mean, and ugly and still decided to help us anyway. A nurse saved my daughters life once.

A doctor saved my wife’s life. EMT’s cared for my father so often and so kindly as he neared death. Pharmacists do the every day magic of keeping us supplied with the medicines that keep us going. A counselor once helped me make sense of the world and my place in it. These people are heroes.

Those Who Teach Children

If you are reading this, someone taught you to read it. The basic building blocks of your life such as reading, writing, thinking, analyzing, and mathematics are present in you because someone taught you to do it. That was probably a teacher. I can think of so many in lifetime — too many to name here, that impacted my life for the better. These people are heroes.

Those Who Feed Us

Two categories go into this. One are farmers. So much of the farming our land now is agribusiness, which is unfortunate, but the small farmer is what I have in mind here. The family who grows the corn and gets it to market, the ranch that raises quality beef, the woman who sells her onions and tomatoes at the vacant lot on Saturday mornings are all the kinds of farmers I mean. The second category are truck drivers. These are the people who make sure everything we need gets to the giant mega-store. Without farmers and truck driver most of us would starve before winter was over. These people are heroes.

Those Who Remind

One more group of heroes. Most people know what they should do and how they should behave, but we forget. We forget about it because we get busy, we get comfortable, or we get confused. Those who remind us of our better angels and of the things which matter are vital. They remind us to be kind and compassionate, to defend the weak, to stand for the vulnerable, to protect life, to care about the immigrant, to choose peace over violence, that light conquers darkness. We all know these things, but we need people to remind us of it. Those people who do often put themselves in jeopardy or risk in the reminding, and sometimes they are even killed for their courage. That is why these people are heroes.

This is my short list of heroes, the people I am thinking of on All Saints Day, and the people who I am thankful for.

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Book Review: Howdy Pilgrim, a Review of Jesus and John Wayne

Okay, I couldn’t resist putting a John Wayneism in the title for my review of “Jesus and John Wayne”.

Please forgive me.

The book is 309 pages of text plus a lot more pages of notes, paperback, written by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She has done good historical work, documented her sources, and covered the time period in a chronological way that I appreciate. There are sixteen chapters, and each chapter is thematic around a basic idea related to the rise of evangelicalism in the United States since the turn of the twentieth century.

Let me begin by addressing the salacious title. This book is not about Jesus. Actually, there is very little about Jesus in it. It is also not about John Wayne. There are a few scatterings about John Wayne and his politics and how it influenced his later movies, especially films like The Green Berets, but if you buy this book thinking there will be a lot of stories about The Duke in it and how he relates to Jesus, then you’ll be disappointed.

This book is about one thing, and one thing only — it seeks to describe and explain the emergence of toxic masculinity, or the patriarchy, within evangelicalism. The subtext of the book is that we are to believe the way evangelicals embraced former president Donald Trump in 2016 is a direct result of that toxic masculinity which had been carefully nurtured by key leaders for at least seventy years. If you want a book that is all about Donald Trump and his relationship with Christ-followers, this book is not that book, as he only occupies pages on the periphery, the beginning and the end. This book is more about the mindset of evangelicals rather than the politics of President Trump.

Du Mez believes evangelicals embraced Trump precisely because he was a testosterone-filled alpha male who put women and his enemies in their place, and that is what they had come to expect from strong leaders. As such, I think she comes up short of proving her argument en toto. She may be right, but I think she overplays the masculinity politics just a tad and underplays the genuine concern many Christians have about issues like abortion, the Supreme Court, and immigration. I don’t write this to defend those positions, but I don’t think it is just the issue of Trump filling the idealized image Christians have of a strong man. I admire her attempt though, because I have often struggled to understand exactly how a New Yorker who built an empire of casinos, had a penchant for pornography, was guilty of womanizing, said his favorite pastor was Norman Vincent Peale (a man evangelicals absolutely couldn’t stand), and cursed so much in public became the darling of Southern Christians. I am less than satisfied with her explanation, but I admire the attempt.

What I like about this book is the thoroughness. It is so thorough at times you feel like it is repetitive. Du Mez can sometimes belabor the point, but that is just good historical footwork. In doing this work she weaves a coherent narrative of evangelical thought from Billy Graham’s famous Los Angeles crusade to Bill Gothard to Phyllis Schlafly to Tim and Beverly LaHaye to Oliver North to John Piper to Mark Driscoll, covering all points in-between. She glosses over a lot of years and personalities, but the way she paints the picture it was one successive leader after another reenforcing gender stereotypes and tropes into the hearts and mental pictures of Christians.

If I were to say there is one particular target for Du Mez, it is not Donald Trump, but James Dobson. She spares no energy in attaching him and his organization, Focus On The Family, to every bad thought or bad idea or bad person. She really, really, really, really does not like him. Yet, it is hard to find anyone she is flattered with. The book is a virtual compendium on the agenda, style, and problems of key Christian leaders — and most of them are in my library — the ones mentioned above, plus folks like Wayne Grudem, Stu Weber, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Tim Keller.

Her critique is needed. There is much in the way of abuse, politics, agenda, and just plain-old-fashioned power grabs that have marred and scarred churches in America. This is an issue of repentance and of change. Do not read her book if you don’t want to argue with her a little bit, and do not read her book if you only read things that conform to your preconceived notions.

I agree with many of her assertions. For example, I think she is right when she highlights how complementarianism has been used by abusive personalities for their own gratification. As an egalitarian, I can completely join in on that perspective. However, not all complementarians are abusive, and the vast majority of them I know are good, honest, wonderful Christ-followers who are seeking to follow the Bible as they understand it. To paint them all with that broad brush of abuse or manipulation is going too far. Egalitarians can be just as guilty of abuse, as the sad situation with Hybels exemplifies.

But my criticism on this front is a minor issue because the church deserves this kind of evaluation from a skilled set of eyes willing to go through the actual historical record. She has the receipts, so to speak, on something I’ve said often but without the data, just more of a gut feeling — and that is this — when we look at what the last seventy years of church life has produced, biblically illiterate people who call themselves Christian, sex scandal after sex scandal, spiritually weak churches, church leaders obsessed with marketshare and media, and then put the cherry on top of a loss of credibility with just about everyone then I ask the honest question, why would we continue to follow any pattern in church life that has been handed down to us? If we are to have healthy Jesus-focused congregations in the future these congregations must break the paradigms that have produced so much poison. Taking away the power of celebrity pastors to set the agenda is one place to start. Another is to reject the idea that growing a big church is somehow the goal. Another is to reject power-players and bullies within local churches. And another, which this current volume aligns with, is the empowering of women to fully exercise ministry gifts. I mean, come on, men have made a pretty big mess of things. Maybe it will take godly women leaders to clean it up.

I recommend this book if for no other reason than we all need to be exposed to our own history.

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Pastoral Ministries And COVID-19

One of the aspects of pastoral ministries I take very seriously is the hospital visit. I know a lot of pastors do not do those any more, but I still think it is important. For most of my twenty five years of ministry, this has two phases. One phase is someone in a room, and in that room and it is just as you would expect, like a regular hospital visit. The biggest challenges in these situation are 1) getting them to turn the television down 2) finding a place to sit 3) not interfering with the medical folks coming and going. It is always important to remember, pastorally, you are on their turf when in the hospital and you must accommodate whatever they have going on.

The second phase of this, is what I think is the most important, and that is pre-op. I have never had any problem walking to the front desk, saying I am so-and so’s pastor, then calling down to get clearance from the patient, and then they walk me down — usually to the last stop before the patient goes in. It is in this setting that I read a little scripture, talk about eternal things, anoint them with oil, and then pray with them for a successful surgery, wisdom for the doctor, a speedy recovery, and no long term problems. The greatest challenges to this was 1) arriving at just the right time, 2) not staying too long, and 3) finding your way back out when finished because those places are a maze.

COVID-19 changed all of that.

I remember the visit I was trying to make the very day they changed the policies at one of our local hospitals and was denied access. I did leave behind a little “prayer bear” from one of our ministries that I take to patients in the hospital.

One of our little prayer bears

For over a year now, hospital visits have been prohibited across the board. In this in between time I have prayed on the phone with a lot of people and visited them in their yard the night before, all masked up and often wearing gloves. Sometimes people prefer to come by my study at church — it feels a little more official, I think for some folks.

Now, though, some hospitals are opening up, our local hospital is, for the Phase One kind of visit. I’ve been able to see people in their rooms the last three or four weeks and that is very nice. It feels almost normal.

The Phrase Two type, though, still seems out-of-reach. I was reminded of this yesterday when we called a hospital to find out if I would be able to do that and was told “You can pray in the lobby before the patient checks in.”

What I am wondering is, as a spiritual guide, if the hospitals will ever open this back up to us as a possibility. I feel like there is a good chance they will not, which is unfortunate. It deprives people of faith of a holistic approach to their well-being.

What I am working through is how this change will combine and steamroll with the rapidly increasing trend toward sending people home the same day of their procedure. More and more surgeries are ‘day surgeries’ or perhaps ‘overnight’ surgeries. The window of opportunity for seeing someone in the hospital has been shrinking steadily. When I first started pastoring in the mid-90s, if a woman had a hysterectomy she was often in the hospital fo a week. Now she is home that afternoon. Back surgeries were usually long stays, but now they schedule them at 6AM and have the patients out the for by four.

I am not complaining about this from a medical perspective — although we all know these rushed times are the result of insurance and not healthcare — but instead my concern is how do you do meaningful hospital ministry in these accelerated programs when COVID-19 protocols are in play? The answer will probably involve some kind of hybrid approach that involves the night before the surgery prayer in home, Sunday at church prayer, video-calling people in the hospital, and the incredibly rare opportunities to hold someones hadn’t, touch their forehead, and pray with them.

What I refuse to do is surrender the playing field, so to speak, and walk away from the sick, the hurting, and the afflicted. As things change, we who give pastoral care will have to work hard to stick our nosey little face in and ask the questions like, “If your surgery doesn’t work out the way we are hopeful it will, are you ready for eternity? Have you told the people you love all the things you need to tell them? What is your biggest fear going into this? How is your relationship with Jesus?” What is more, those we minister too will have to help us, because we’re navigating waters that are fresh and new to us and are contrary to both our training and our temperament.