It’s been a strange odyssey–my journey toward discovering a new and very enjoyable sport: shooting. Until this week, I had shot guns only twice in my life. The first time was when I was in my teens and a friend who lived on a remote farm let me shoot his .22 rifle at a junked car out in the field. I don’t remember finding it very appealing. The second was when I was a young itinerant preacher and I stayed at the home of a retired police officer. He invited me to shoot his .357 magnum at a target in his backyard. That was a more memorable experience.
In any case, until now, guns–and the continuing debate over them–have largely been a theoretical exercise for me. I have many friends and colleagues that are gun aficionados and we talk about firearms and the Second Amendment. I live and minister in Washington, DC, where there is a constant discussion about gun regulation. And, for years, I drove past the national headquarters of the NRA on my way in and out of the city. But until this past Monday, my appreciation for all this was remote.
Not that I hadn’t had close encounters with the drama and tragedy that surround guns. I was at the U.S. Capitol on the day a crazed gunman took the lives of two police officers. I knew one of the fallen, J.J. Chestnut, a Christian brother and active deacon in his Baptist church. The recent mass shooting at the Navy Yard took place in my neighborhood and placed my apartment building in lock down. And, just feet from the front door of our ministry center, police shot and killed a young mother that had tried to ram her car through the gates of the White House, then deliberately crashed into a security kiosk outside the Capitol.
My trip this week to the Tranquility Wildlife Area Shooting Range in rural Adams County, Ohio, had nothing to do with all this, though. What put me there was an unusual project I’ve been involved in for the past several months. Before I go into details, I need to tell you that I live a secret life. You may know me only as a missionary to top government officials in Washington, DC, but there’s another side to me, and it’s time for you to know about it.
No, I’m not a CIA agent. I wish it were that exotic. It’s actually–well–only–that I’m the chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance (ECA), the oldest association of independent evangelical clergy in the country. Before you yawn, let me tell you I get a lot of interesting invitations because of this position. Because of this post, I just finished a mediation effort between several large and long-established Christian institutions that have been suing one another for more than a decade. And, it was in part because of my role in the ECA that I was contacted by a film company out of New York ans asked to do a project with them.
Fork Films is owned by Abigail Disney–yes, a member of the famous entertainment family, but, more importantly, a “peace activist” and anti-NRA campaigner. “Abby,” as I’ve come to know her, asked me if I’d be willing to talk with her on camera about why so many evangelical Christians are gun rights advocates and NRA enthusiasts. I told her I would because I’m actually asked the same question by many lawmakers and other policy setters in Washington. Thus, another “secret project’ got underway. Since that initial conversation, Abby, her production crew, and I have had endless discussions about this difficult issue. They’ve also followed me around as I’ve preached in churches, met with individuals on all sides of the gun debate, and pulled together groups of pastors and church leaders to talk through the implications of gun policy and gun-associated violence in America.
This hasn’t been an easy task. Many people see the question of gun regulation as two-dimensional: You’re either for or against the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms. I don’t see it so simplistically. I’ll explain why further on, but first, let me say clearly I do believe the Second Amendment is a critical element to maintaining a free society. Governments that prohibit their citizens from owning firearms do not trust their citizens to govern themselves. However, lethal weapons carry with them enormous moral responsibility and ethical accountability. I literally felt the weight of this fact when I went to the shooting range this past Monday.
I went to the Tranquility Wildlife Shooting Range, a state park facility in Adams County, Ohio, with Joshua Johnson, the son of Pastor Kenneth Johnson of the Seaman Community Methodist Church. Josh is a U.S. Marine reservist and an impressive young man. He’s an economist, farmer, and software entrepreneur. He’s also a gun enthusiast that takes the sport very seriously. And, need I say, he’s a card carrying member of the NRA.
Josh was an excellent coach and gave me a very careful and very disciplined introduction to three weapons: The celebrated–or notorious–Colt AR15 semiautomatic rifle, a Sig Sauer P226 .40 caliber handgun, and a 12 gauge pump action shot gun. I don’t mind telling you I was little intimidated at first. These are powerful instruments. Josh’s very professional instruction put me at ease, though, and I found the guns not only easy to use, but thoroughly enjoyable. I now get why sportsman like these firearms–and why they get so much pleasure from them. After just the first hour on the range, I fell in love with the sport
But that’s not the end of the story. I got a whole lot more out of the experience of holding, and hearing, and feeling these guns. I was acutely aware that while they are enormously enjoyable for sport, and very useful for hunting, they are at the same time potentially devastating and deadly weapons. Josh emphasized again and again how I was to never treat a gun lightly or presume it was empty; never point it toward anyone; and always check and double check its safety features. There’s good reason for a gun owner to do those things. As Josh warned, when you fire a bullet toward anyone, no matter what your intention, you must be ready for it to kill. As I fired away down range at my target, I was mindful that a turn of just a few degrees would change the situation from enjoyable to catastrophic. It was while I was rapid-firing 30 rounds from the AR15 that I had another terrible thought–about the classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. I thought about what that same weapon did there. What its bullets did to those children–how terrifying its sound must have been to them–and what the feel of its discharge must have been to the mentally disturbed shooter.
That’s why I came away from my day at the range with two conflicted emotions: One was the joy–and even sense of empowerment–that comes with firing a well-made weapon. The other was the sorrow and even fear of what that same instrument can do in the hands of the wrong person.
I’m still praying through this very serious and enormously consequential question of gun rights and gun responsibility. I’m examining carefully when, if, and how government should preserve liberty while it protects the citizenry. I’d like to think government alone can come up with the answers, but I know it can’t. I’d like to think that secular organizations like the NRA can come up with the answers, but I know it can’t either. I do know one absolute source of absolute answers to these questions. That absolute source is the God that Created us and gave us our liberties and our responsibilities. It is His Word alone that instructs us in righteousness but warns us of our sinfulness:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
“None is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10)
“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor 10:12)
It is this proclivity to sin that is the reason our own American founders constructed a form of government built on the separation of powers. Each of the three branches, legislative, executive, and judicial, would hold the others accountable. And it’s why the whole of the government would ultimately be held accountable to the people, who themselves were assumed to be held accountable to God. The point is, no human agency can be left entirely to itself. We all need some measure of external control. The question is how great of a control and administered by whom?
All of this must be kept in mind and in prayer as we continue to debate the contours of our liberties, including the very important one enumerated in the Second Amendment.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act just and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
This week our Faith and Action chief of program, Peggy Nienaber, and I hosted Pastor Dan Cummins and members of his Bullard, Texas church. They’re in town to spearhead the upcoming May 7 prayer service to beheld in prestigious Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.
The event, entitled, “Washington: Man of Prayer,” will celebrate the 225th Inaugural Anniversary of the first president. Instead of emphasizing Washington’s military or political career, the service will focus on the remarkable Founder’s devotional life.
One of the main contributions that our Faith and Action team is making to this historic event is to ensure that Pastor Cummins and the other organizers have access to the people and places in Washington that will ensure the May 7th gathering is a success.
When we made a short list of critical contacts in Washington, I felt it was important for Pastor Cummins to meet a good friend of mine and a long-time ally with Faith and Action. Dr. James Huston is director of manuscripts for the Library of Congress and one of the foremost scholars on the founding generation and it’s treatment of religion in American public life.
Under Dr. Hutson’s charge at the Library are the original papers of many of America’s presidents, including its first. As usual, he was very hospital in receiving Peggy and me at his office in the Madison Building adjacent to the offices of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is here where countless rare documents are stored in environmentally controlled and heavily secure rooms.
In the photo below, Dr. Huston reads from the actual letter President Washington had circulated to the executives of the states on June 11, 1783. While it is written in the hand of one of his correspondence secretaries, it bears his actual, personal signature. The letter is referred to as “Washington’s Prayer,” because of this clause:
“I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for brethren who have served in the field; and finally that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.”
In the photo below, Dr. Hutson reads this beautiful passage from the original document to Dr. Cummins, his wife Joann, Peggy Nienaber and me.
It’s heartening to see this side to the First Chief Executive. Through my many visits to Washington’s Anglican parish, Christ Church and Truro Church, both in nearby Northern Virginia, I’ve known about his commitment to church life. Seeing this letter in front of me lead me to appreciate this side of Washington even more. Reading his eloquent and apparently quite sincere words leaves me with no doubt about his passionate faith. A treasured legacy for our nation.
Watch for my eye-witness posts on the historic “Washington: Man of Prayer” event–and please join the Father of our Country in his earnest prayer!
Today the Justices of the United States Supreme Court will meet at 10:00 AM (EDT) behind closed doors to cast their votes on whether or not to uphold the First Amendment guarantee of religious exercise for the Green family of Oklahoma and the Hahn family of Pennsylvania. The Greens founded and remain the owners of Hobby Lobby, the nationwide arts and crafts retail store chain, and the Hahns own Conestoga Wood Specialties, a manufacturer of wood doors and components for kitchen, bath and furniture.
The Greens and the Hahns have long histories of running their respective companies according to their deeply held Christian convictions. The Obama Administration has issued orders for these business owners, and countless others like them, to violate their principles by funding employee insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs. Both families have said no to that order and stand to pay draconian fines in the millions of dollars should the Court deny their petition for relief.
The families were in court last Tuesday to make their argument that they and their companies have a God-given, constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of their religion–and that the government cannot force them to violate that exercise by coercing them into supporting abortion. The question is whether a majority of the justices on the High Court will agree with them or with President Obama. That will be determined today in the private conference where not even Supreme Court staff are allowed to be present. Only the nine justices themselves will be in that room–and the outcome of the vote will not be disclosed for months. The vote tally is kept top secret until each of the justices have written their opinions on the case. The Court’s term is over at the end of June, and it may be that long before we know the fate of the Greens and the Hahns and their companies. The decision may also have a bearing on the Affordable Care Act, the federal law that requires companies like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to underwrite health insurance that includes certain forms of abortion.
In case this all sounds so mysterious, maybe it would be good for you to know how a Supreme Court case works. I’ll say at the outset that I’m a layman in the law (a preacher–not a lawyer), so, what I’ll present here is a layman’s summary of how this case–and others like it–came to be:
A Supreme Court case like this almost always comes after it has progressed through the “lower courts.” (There are other paths, but they’re relatively rare.) The Greens and the Hahns originally filed suit at the District Court level. (This is a federal court that is usually near where the party (or parties) live or have their business headquarters.) It is only at the District level that a “trial” occurs. In other words, that’s the place where the parties make their claims and counter claims, where evidence is presented, and where witnesses testify under oath. That first-level case was then appealed to a “Circuit Court,” which generally only reviews how the District court handled the case, and whether everything was done properly and according to the law, and especially to the Constitution. Sometimes the appeal process will involve two reviews by a Circuit level court: once with a small group of judges (called a “petit banc”) and again, with a larger group, or “en banc,” all the judges in that system. (Which can be a lot–like 10, or 20, or even 50, or 70!) It’s generally only after a conclusive review by the circuit court that one of the parties can make a final appeal to the United States Supreme Court. This is done by what’s called a “petition for writ of certiorari,” or, in regular English, an “ask for final review and determination.” The Supreme Court may or may not grant that final review. If it does not (“denies the petition”), the decision of the highest review court is affirmed and stands as the final decision. If it does grant review, it may ultimately dismiss the case, remand it (or send it back to the lower courts for a re-do), vacate the finding of the lower courts and decide something different, or modify the finding of the lower court. These actions are taken after both parties submit “briefs,” or written and well-documented arguments for their claims, and “outsiders” submit what are called “amicus curiae” (Latin for “friend-of-the-court”) briefs, that supply additional information to help the court make a good decision. Then, the lawyers for each side are invited to come before the justices in person for “oral argument.” This is a sort of a last-ditch-effort to turn the minds of the justices one way or the other. The lawyers generally have 30 minutes each to make their cases. (Although their time might be extended, as it was in this last big case.) Lawyers are often peppered with questions by the justices. As soon as a justice speaks, the lawyer must stop speaking until the justice has finished his or her question or comment.
Once the gavel is struck and the case is “submitted,” the very next thing to happen is the private conference. This usually takes place a couple of days after the oral argument. In the private conference (where, as I said, the justices are by themselves, with no other persons anywhere within listening range) the Chief Justice calls for a vote. Each justice then voices an opinion, a consensus usually forms, and each will agree entirely with the consensus, disagree entirely with it (dissent), or agree in part and disagree in part. After the vote, the justices then begin writing their “opinions.” If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he will usually write the main opinion. If he is not in the majority, he will usually assign the most senior member in the majority to write it. Dissenting members will write their own briefs to announce why they didn’t join with the majority. During this period justices may change their minds, decide to agree with another justice and not write their own briefs, or attempt to convince their colleagues to come over to their side.
Once the opinions are all written, the Chief Justice decides on a date to ‘release” the opinions. Normally, this date is not announced in advance, so it takes everyone by surprise. Sometimes opinions are read by their authors from the bench when the justices are “sitting.” At other times, they are simply handed out at the Clerk’s office, then, almost immediately posted to the Court’s website. These are the only ways anyone, including petitioners, learn of the outcome. As an “opinion,” the Court simply informs the government and the American people of how it thinks the matter stands under the Constitution. Of course, Congress can respond to the “opinions” any way it likes, and the Executive branch can do the same. Generally, though, all branches and levels of government follow the dictates of the Court.
This whole process is undertaken according to the Supreme Court’s own internal rules. Remember, this is the highest court in the land, so it can do things the way it wants to do them! It also considers these cases on its own time schedule. Nothing requires the justices to issue their opinions within any time frame–that’s entirely up to them. Theoretically, they can take as long as they like, even months or years to make a decision. (Or they may choose to make no decision at all!) However, virtually all opinions are released within the term in which they are heard, and terms run October through June. So, we would expect to hear the results of this most recent case between now and June, although highly controversial and complicated cases are often held until the very end of the term, late June.
Well, now you know the intricacies of a Supreme Court case, and you know basically how the Hobby Lobby / Conestoga Wood case will go. You may feel powerless in all this, but you’re not:
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16b ESV)
The Reverend Fred Phelps is a constant topic of conversation here in Washington. In case you need a reminder, Fred Phelps was the pastor of an independent Baptist church in Kansas that often sent its members long distances to hold signs outside events (including military funerals), deriding homosexuals and denouncing America as a focus of God’s harsh judgment for its acceptance of homosexuality, among other sins. He and the Westboro Baptist Church that he led for many years are often invoked by lawmakers whenever discussions turn toward public policy on anything related to homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Phelps and company would enter my immediate world whenever there was case at the Supreme Court related even remotely to these issues. In fact, Supreme Court security would sometimes ask if I knew whether, “those people with the ‘God hates fags’ signs will show up.’” Of course, the only time I knew anything about Westboro Baptist’s itinerary was only after they did show up, often opposite of our prayer gatherings in front of the Court.
Just a few years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled Phelps and his church members were constitutionally protected in their provocative activities under the First Amendment. That was important for every protest and advocacy group in the country–and, for that, we can all be grateful–ahem–for “Brother Fred” and his minions.
In my world, the problem with Fred Phelps was far greater than his being a source of embarrassment. I’ll admit Phelps and Company could be that. Who wants to be associated with crude, sometimes vulgar placards and base insults? I certainly never wanted the Kansas folks confused with being our people who quietly, reverently, and with a spiritual self-control, witness to the truth in dignity and with respect, hating the sin, but loving the sinners–as God loves our sinful selves. And here lies the Shakespearean “rub.”
The Phelps’ message was a theological heresy. He once defended it, saying, “Fags cannot repent.”Aside from a legitimate discussion of reprobation and its implications, this statement is fundamentally flawed because “fag” is not a biblical term. It is, in fact, a term of human contempt and therefore of human invention–in this specific case, of Fred Phelp’s invention. It stems from his own personal revulsion to a particular sin–and therefore has no theological meaning at all. It’s a “Phelpsism,” not a “biblicism.” It never came from the lips of Christ and cannot be found anywhere in the Scriptures.
Here’s the deal: When you listen to almost anything Fred Phelps said, wrote, or preached, it had its basis in his own personal disdain for others and inordinately high esteem for himself. In other words, Fred Phelps generated it, then projected it on God and on His Gospel. That made Fred Phelps an idolator, a violation of the First Commandment, “I am the Lord Your God. You shall have no other Gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3) Fred Phelps spoke only and always finally for himself and not for the truly and absolute authority of Christ who said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” (John 8:51 NKJV)
So, while Fred Phelps troubled a lot of people, including the grieving families of fallen soldiers, he should never be misunderstood as having been a representative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or of a biblical position on homosexuals, homosexuality, salvation or damnation. He should simply be seen as an illustration of just how robust our American concept of freedom of speech is, and to what extent our founders went in preserving and protecting it. That’s it, plain and simple.
As for the other critically important questions about human sexuality, sin, grace, forgiveness, judgement, damnation, and the death of soldiers, there is a much, much, much higher authority to look to for answers–real answers–not substitutions based on the idiosyncrasies of an idolator.
Oh, did I say I’m sure the Bible indicates God’s grace extends even to the idolator? But that’s a discussion for another day . . .
Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min., is an ordained Evangelical minister, president and lead missionary of Faith and Action, a Christian missionary outreach to top government officials in Washington, DC, and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, America’s oldest association of independent evangelical ministers, missionaries, and military and civilian chaplains. He holds degrees in Bible, Theology, Religion, and Christian Ministry.
There was quite the drama in Arizona as the media waited with baited breath for Governor Jan Brewer to decide whether to sign or veto a new law affecting businesses and their gay would-be patrons. We had all heard the stories: A photographer had declined to cover a same-sex wedding. Was there also a caterer that had essentially done the same? Can’t remember it all, but we all knew about the law. At the eleventh hour the same governor that was a hero of the Tea Party, had signed the strongest border control and immigration laws, and ran as a strong conservative, surprised many by nullifying what had been bandied about by talking heads as a draconian anti-gay bill–but appears to have been something more innocuous. (Never mind, that’s beside the point.)
Why Governor Brewer “caved” (as some conservative commentators characterized her action) isn’t the most important thing to me. Instead, the whole episode is instructive, especially in light of something that just happened between the organization I lead (an admittedly conservative-leaning Christian ministry) and a business that is, by its own description, “left leaning” and “progressive.” The latter will remain nameless for now, but perhaps not for always. Anyway, here’s what happened:
Our ministry has lots of friends who help us in different ways, with their prayers, with their moral support, by volunteering their time, making financial contributions, giving us feedback, even visiting our ministry center when they’re in Washington. Keeping track of all these good folks is a formidable challenge–especially since they now number upwards of 80,000! (Just try to do that in your home contact list!) So, we need professional help with this task–and we get it by “renting” the services of data management companies.
Well, the good news is that we had outgrown the capacities of two such service providers and went looking for another bigger, more powerful product to house all these names, addresses, phone numbers, and other pertinent information. After an exhaustive search, one of my team members found precisely the product we needed. The challenge was extracting ourselves from contractual agreements with the previous vendors, figuring out how to move the data without losing or corrupting it, and mastering an entirely new way of doing things. It cost us several thousand dollars, a lot of human hours, and a whole new orientation to data management. There came a big training day when three of our best people sat in front of computer screens as a representative from the new company took them through a meticulous step-by-step session. When it was over we all sighed in relief and got ready to launch into a new dimension of data management we thought for sure would benefit not only our team–but each of our friends out there that expect us to handle their information carefully and efficiently.
Instead of launching, though, we were sunk. On the very day we were to execute the final contract we got this e-mail from the new company:
As you might not be aware (name of comany) has what we would classify as a “left leaning” or “progressive” client base. While we don’t apply any kind of litmus test to our clients and their missions, the one thing we do try to avoid is bringing on clients whose missions might be contradictory to the missions of a large portion of our current clients (for obvious reasons). We generally attempt to cursorily screen clients in advance, and for whatever reason this was not done with Faith and Action. And while I don’t have any personal qualms with your mission, I know that a large portion of our current client base is likely to. For that reason, it would be best for both parties if we terminate the contract we just began.
Hmm. (It may be worth noting here that our mission statement on our website reads, “Our purpose is to challenge the minds and consciences of our nation’s public policy makers with the mandate given by Christ in the two Great Commandments, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Is this what the writer is referring to??)
Well, anyway, you might ask, Did you know this fact about the new company and its customer base? The answer is, Yes. We did look into them, and I hesitated at first. After all, virtually all of their clients were, in one way or another, philosophically, socially, and politically opposite of us, but that wasn’t what was most important in this situation. We wanted the best product out there to serve our good people and we determined this company had what we were looking for. And, because they are so good at what they do, I decided to take a risk and do business with them. Not only that, I also thought it would be good to extend a hand of friendship across the great cultural divide that is hurting our country so badly. After all, we preach that we must “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” In this instance, I thought we could “hate the positions these folks promote through their marketing, but love the product they have produced!”
No go on that.
So here’s the real rub: In the case of Arizona, “left leaning,” “progressive” groups demand that “right leaning,” “conservative” businesses service them on demand or face legal penalties for not doing so. But, apparently, for them, it doesn’t have to work the other way around. While right-leaners must be COMPELLED by law to do business with left-leaners, left-leaners must NOT BE COMPELLED to do the same for right-leaners.
Don’t get me wrong: In our case, I don’t begrudge the company’s prerogative to refuse us as customers. That’s their inalienable right and I will champion their freedom to do it. It’s our loss (literally and figuratively), but it’s their gain of self-determination. The only thing I ask is that it works both ways. If “progressives” get to refuse “conservatives,” isn’t it only right that “conservatives” get to refuse “progressives?”
I would argue the real problem here is not left/right, or even law/no-law, but the loss of comity, civility, a sense of fairness, equity, and mutual respect and tolerance. Do as I say but not as I do has always been bad form and it is again here.
At the risk of further alienating our “could-have-been” progressive partners, I will quote my favorite “radical”–Jesus:
“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
This is a lesson for all of us–on the right and on the left.
Well, we need to get on looking for a civil data base management provider, regardless of their political preferences. Know anybody that practices what they preach?
“Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes . . .” (Genesis 18:27)
For many Christians today is Ash Wednesday, an ancient observance when ashes from the prior year’s burned Palm Sunday branches are applied to the foreheads of those that come to the altar in humility and repentance.
We will see a lot of ashes on foreheads today, even in the most unlikely places. Probably the most conspicuous will again be the Vice President, Joe Biden. Reporters and photojournalists love to spot the Veep sporting his ashes. More than a few members of Congress will bear the symbol. At least a couple of the Supreme Court justices will likely have the black smudge front and center. One past Ash Wednesday I noted Justice Scalia sitting on the bench with a subtle cross drawn above his brow.
The Ash Wednesday ritual is based on the Bible’s record of the use of ashes as a visible sign of contrition (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1,3; Job 2:8, 30:19, 42:6; Jonah 3:6). The tradition is meant to help believers identify with the suffering and death of Jesus as a penalty for our sin.
My home church has an Ash Wednesday service and I go because it helps me recalibrate my spiritual compass. Ash Wednesday also helps me to publicly profess my identification with the One who died for me. Of course, as with anything, a ritual can become a meaningless exercise. Not everyone that stands during a Sunday service is really giving reverence to God; not everyone that sings is really praising God; and not everyone that bows his or her head is really praying to God. And it goes without saying that not everybody with ashes on their foreheads today will be truly recalling Christ’s sacrificial death for them or their need for His gift of salvation.
Still, I’m always encouraged by the number of people that at least carry the message with them on this special day, sincerely or insincerely. The ashes have a meaning of their own and it’s a good one. After all, not everyone that carries a Bible under his arm is a believer in the Word, but I’d rather see more Bibles under arms than less. At least the potential to believe is always there.
Today, in the nation’s capital, I’d rather see more people with ashes on their heads than less. At the very least it gets the right conversational buzz going.
Have a blessed day of remembering the greatest act of generosity ever afforded humankind:
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
In an obvious reference to Genesis 4:9, President Obama this week launched “My Brother’s Keeper,” a White House program aimed at helping support minority young men. The statistics are mind-boggling: Young men of color are six times as likely to be murdered as their white counterparts. Black males are wildly disproportionate among jail populations. 86% of Hispanic boys fail reading proficiency for the fourth grade. In my opinion, the President should be commended for highlighting this enormous crisis.
Before I continue, I’ll remind you that in 2008, I was one of the very first ministers in the country to go on national television to oppose Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. I had traveled to Illinois in 2004 to do the same thing when he ran for U.S. Senate. So don’t misunderstand me. I still believe Mr. Obama should not have been elected to either post, but he was, and he is the President in a second term. For that reason alone, it’s important for him to be a role model for young men. Because he is a man of color, he’s in a unique position to positively influence this extraordinarily at-risk sector. There’s room, of course, to critique how he goes about it, and that forum will soon open up on the White House website. But on the whole, saying something, doing something, calling for something, is better than remaining silent.
In the Genesis account when God asks Cain about his brother Abel, Cain’s response is cocky and insolent. The implication of the Divine rebuke, “What have you done?” (v.10) is that, Yes, Cain is his brother’s keeper and bears responsibility for his murder.
I think the reversal of that impudence in the Cain and Abel narrative is a proper one. It’s not just OK for the President to use the phrase, it invites the public to look back to the Bible for a very important lesson in morality. My question is, Will the media, and educators, and political activists give well-deserved attention to the source of the President’s moniker?
The debate about the program itself has begun and I hope you’ll participate, as I plan to do. Time will tell whether “My Brother’s Keeper” is successful. But one thing we do know: The Obama White House has just initiated a major effort by the executive branch that is named after a Bible verse and is aimed at helping young people. He deserves credit for both.
February is Black History Month. Our American culture, our society, our way of life, and even our government, owes so very much to the black presence among us–and, as I’ll argue here–specifically the black church.
Of course, black history in America is replete with great figures in all disciplines including law, science, the arts, education, media, politics, business, humanities, philanthropy, and labor. One means by which blacks have made a huge contribution to American life often goes underrated, though, and that’s the black church.
The black church is far more than vivacious singing and soaring oratorical preaching, as important as these two elements are to so much of what has made America what it is. The black church is, more importantly, a bastion of intense spirituality, Christian orthodoxy, biblical morality, and positive social organization.
For decades–arguably for centuries–the church was the only place in America where blacks could safely organize themselves and live peacefully in community. It was the key to survival in a hostile world, the only platform for potential black leaders to be identified, nurtured, and given voice.
As the locus for the civil rights movement, the black church spoke to the conscience of America. Martin Luther King, Jr. was first and foremost the Reverend Dr. King. He was a preacher of the gospel, just as were so many of his colleagues. King succeeded where other social reformers had failed, in large part because he spoke with both the content and delivery of a preacher. He pierced the hearts of Americans and stirred their souls, as much as he persuaded their minds. He touched the spirit and the intellect. In short, he proved that Americans are, at our core, a religious people.
My opinion here is not simply a theoretical one. I know the power of the black church up close and personal. Not only have I preached in a number of black pulpits, and took my doctoral degree with an almost entirely black class of candidates (learning from them what I would have never learned from white cohorts), but I may owe a part of my own family’s salvation story to the influence of a particular black church.
I was already ordained to the ministry when I finally located a mysterious woman in my family history. As a young child I used to hear tales of “Crazy Aunt Rosie,” who was described as a “religious fanatic.” My father loved to tell stories of Rosie’s visits to our home when she would jam religious pamphlets (what I now know as gospel tracts) in between to sofa cushions and beside cereal boxes in the kitchen cabinets. The discovery of them led to peals of laughter and delight, like a childish game of treasure hunt. But when I finally found Aunt Rosie in a Baptist home for the aged in New Jersey, she told me how she used to pick up my mother and grandmother on Sunday nights and take them with her to the “colored church” where they could hear the gospel preached faithfully. My mother later confirmed this and told me she loved the black church and couldn’t wait to go.
While those seeds of faith in my mom’s little girl heart wouldn’t spring forth until a half-century later, I’m convinced it was that unnamed “negro church” that firmly planted them there. And this is my most meaningful connection to the black church. But there’s still one more episode that binds my heart inseparably to my black brothers and sisters in Christ:
If you’ve been by our ministry center on Capitol Hill, you’ve seen our beautiful monument of the Ten Commandments that sits in the front garden facing the United States Supreme Court. You probably also know about the epic five-year battle we fought to install it and keep it there. In fact, not only were we repeatedly denied permission to display the Ten Commandments in front of our property, but once we installed it, we were threatened with fines and the eventual forced sale of our property if we didn’t remove it. Well, we stood on our God-given and constitutionally protected rights, but, as you know, that doesn’t always work. It got to the point where we were actually expecting a court-ordered crane to yank that 850-pound sculpture out of the ground. Instead, a letter from the Government of the District of Columbia was hand-delivered to our office rescinding a previous order for us to remove the monument.
We considered the letter to be an answer to prayer, of course, and a vindication of our constitutional stand. But I’ve always said when God moves, He moves something and someone, and I went looking for both. I became convinced that the outcome was tied directly to the strong presence of the black church in Washington, D.C. You see, if local politicians know anything, it’s that they must have the support of the black church to get elected, stay in office, and accomplish something. The lesson deeply embedded in the D.C. political psyche is this: The last thing a politician wants to do here is pick a fight with a preacher–black, white, brown, or any other color. When a pol fights a parson in D.C., the pol is almost sure to lose.
Thank you black church for all you’ve done for the whole of the church in D.C. And thank you for all you’ve done for the church everywhere. Glory!
As I stood against a back wall at the Washington Hilton hotel listening to President Obama make remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, my heart rate started to climb as soon as I heard our chief executive say, “Yet, even as our faith sustains us, it’s also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat. And that is what I want to reflect on this morning. “
From that moment on, it was hard for me to keep my mind focused because somehow I knew where the President’s words would lead. I knew this was his time to do something so many of us had prayed for and worked hard for, and for which more than a few had taken serious risks. This was the moment the President needed to say something about Pastor Saeed Abedini, the young Iranian born American pastor held for more than 18 months in life-threatening conditions in Tehran.
I was so convinced this would happen that I began thumb-typing a tweet on it before the President had said much more. I was already whispering excited prayers of thanksgiving to God for this moment because I knew how critically important it has always been for the American president to weigh in on this supremely humanitarian cause. Then, when the President said the name of another unjustly detained American minister, Kenneth Bae, being held similarly by North Korea, I knew it was inevitable.
“We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs . . . “
I bolted out of the room and ran down the hall to another entry where two of my staff members were seated. I caused a little disturbance as I pointed at them and clicked my fingers, gesturing to follow me. We hurried to the prayer room where several colleagues had spent the morning in deep intercession for the program and participants on the platform.
“Your prayers have availed much, “ I told them, reporting what had just happened and bowing our heads in prayerful gratitude for this divine intervention. We thanked God for the President, for his words on behalf of Pastor Abedini and for other persecuted believers, and asked the Lord to open the hearts and minds of the Iranians, that they might let His people go.
Now, don’t get me wrong: President Obama is not, and can never be Pastor Saeed’s (or anyone else’s) deliverer. During this whole drama, Isaiah’s words in Chapter 60, verses 15-16 came to my mind,
“You were once abandoned and despised, with no one passing through, but I will make you a permanent source of pride and joy to coming generations. You will drink the milk of nations; you will nurse at the breasts of kings. Then you will recognize that I, the Lord, am your deliverer, your protector, the powerful Ruler of Jacob.”
God alone is our deliverer, but He often uses earthly instruments to rescue His people. In the estimation of many, the President of the United was always a critically important element in securing Pastor Saeed’s freedom. Now, we’ll need to watch and see if that’s indeed the case, but it’s also important to understand what came before this historic call for an American’s freedom, and the complicated path that led to it.
Pastor Saeed Abedini is a unique individual. His story is a rare one. Born and raised in Iran, Pastor Saeed (pronounced Sah-éde) is 34 years old and an evangelical Christian minister. He is married to Nagmeh, an American of Iranian descent who was raised in Boise, Idaho. The two met in Iran and were married there in 2004. In 2010 Saeed was granted American citizenship. The couple has a boy and a girl and the family lives in Boise. As a convert from Islam, Saeed is considered suspect by the Islamist government of his home country. Prior to his emigration to America, Saeed came to the attention of the feared Iranian secret police because of his extraordinary success in establishing hundreds of underground churches for secret believers.
Once Saeed became an American citizen, he traveled back and forth to his native land, continuing to assist churches there and building a mission orphanage. The police detained Saeed during one of his visits back home and required him to sign a pledge that he would end his involvement with the house churches. However, Saeed continued with his orphanage project. Then, in July 2012, Revolutionary Guard Forces took Saeed into custody and seized his passport. He was sent to the notorious Elvin Prison and was later tried on charges of undermining state security. In January 2013, Saeed was sentenced to eight years in prison and eventually transferred to the even more menacing Rajai Shahr penitentiary. Since that move, Saeed has not been allowed visits. Many believe his life is in imminent danger.
Since Saeed’s plight has come to public attention in the U.S., many have come to his aid in prayer and in practical ways. His home church, Calvary Chapel Boise, has been enormously generous to Nagmeh and the family, and our friends at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) have given her free legal representation in the U.S. and before the European Court of Human Rights. The ACLJ has also launched an international petition campaign for Saeed’s release and has advocated for him politically in the U.S. and abroad.
In March of 2013, my dear friend and sister in Christ, Dr. Suzan D. Johnson-Cook, used her then office as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, to call an unprecedented meeting of high-level officials at the State Department to hear Nagmeh’s plea for the Secretary of State to personally intervene on her husband’s behalf. This meeting, that included myself, Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, Jay and Jordan Sekulow of the ACLJ, and, of course, Nagmeh, was what began the momentum toward the President’s remarks at the prayer breakfast. After I was given permission to close that important meeting with prayer, a long-time bureaucrat pulled me aside and said, “Reverend, I’ve been here a lot of years, and I think this was the only time a prayer has ever been offered at a meeting in the State Department. Thank you for doing that.”
But there were other, even more consequential incidents along the way that demonstrate just how complex the process is when it involves a president and tensions with hostile nations.
First, there was the transition between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, which took place just as Saeed was being tried and sentenced in Iran. The transition resulted in a setback, probably because of significant changes in policy and personnel at the State Department under the newly installed Secretary Kerry. Then there was the departure of Ambassador Johnson Cook in October 2013, which left Saeed and Nagmeh without their most powerful advocate inside the U.S. Administration.
Then, in December of last year, when I attended the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Washington’s National Cathedral, I sat just a few chairs behind Secretary Kerry. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I approached him very respectfully and asked him not to forget Pastor Saeed.
“Millions of Americans are praying for Pastor Saeed and are looking to you, Sir, to use your good office to get him home,” I told the Secretary.
He placed his hand to his chest and said to me, “I’ll do everything I can, Reverend. I assure you.”
“We’re counting on that, Mr. Secretary, and we’re praying for your success. Please don’t forget him.”
Time passed with no visible progress on Saeed’s case. Then, something almost miraculous happened. Our own Pat Mahoney, who had flown to Turkey last September in an unsuccessful attempt to enter Iran from there and appeal directly to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Nagmeh’s behalf, received a surprise invitation. It came from Jay Carney, press secretary and close friend to President Obama. Because of family connections, Jay offered to take Pat and the entire Mahoney family for a private, personally escorted tour of the White House. The Carneys and Mahoneys had dinner afterwards, and Pat pressed Jay to urge the President to publicly call for Saeed’s release. It was a tall order and Mr. Carney made no commitments. He did invite Pat to send him an e-mail with details, though, and Pat dutifully did so.
The next thing that happened was the President’s bold statement from behind the presidential seal at the National Prayer Breakfast, in front of 3000 guests, among them Secretary Kerry, other members of his cabinet, international diplomats, heads of state, and the entire White House press corps. It was monumental and the culmination of months of hard and relentless work, focused intercessory prayer, recruitment of hundreds of thousands of petitions, countless meetings, news conferences, arrests for civil disobedience, and even a pray-in at the White House gates that included members of Congress and Senator Ted Cruz.
The breakthrough came in these presidential words,
“We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs. And as we continue to work for his freedom, today, again, we call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini so he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho.”
The highest office of the most powerful nation on earth had spoken for Pastor Saeed. In doing so, President Obama placed Saeed squarely on the table of negotiations with Iran. In my estimation, the President did the right and noble thing and deserves to be commended and thanked for it. Again, no human agent will be Saeed’s singular savior. There is only one Savior, Christ the Lord, and He is the One and Only who can rescue Saeed from his plight. We must continue to pray earnestly for Saeed, his wife and children, and for all those persecuted in Iran and around the world. In remembering Saeed before the Lord in prayer, we mustn’t forget his brother and fellow laborer, Kenneth Bae in North Korea. Good for President Obama in reminding us of this other brave soul. And we cannot forget all the nameless brothers and sisters that languish in dungeons around the world without the attention that Saeed and Kenneth Bae have now gotten.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them . . .” (Hebrews 13:3)
Praying always with you for them,
Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min, is president of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital, America’s only Christian missionary outreach to top elected and appointed officials, located across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court, one block from the U.S. Capitol, and ten minutes from the White House. He also serves as chaplain to the Capitol Hill Executive Service Club and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance International.
Contact: Rev. Rob Schenck, Faith and Action, 109 2nd St NE, Washington, DC 20002 Tel. 202-546-8329 or firstname.lastname@example.org URL: www.faithandaction.org