Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is God a Seminole?

As I write this it is the morning after the NCAA Division I FBS National Championship in which Florida State University came back from the dead to beat Auburn University.  With about 2 minutes to go in the game I turned to Debby and said, "I guess we'll now see which side God is on."  She merely groaned an inaudible response.  

Since I did not have a dog in that fight (I pull for Alabama and Clemson in that order,) I thought it an interesting way to view the last part of the game.  Why do we assume that God is always on the side of the winning team?  Does God not care about the losing team?  Did they not pray enough or give enough in order for God to bless them?  Why is it that God always seems to favor the team with the bigger, stronger, faster and better prepared players?  Does God not care about slower, weaker, and smaller players?  Are these teams always reduced to "building character" through accepting loss?  Does David ever beat Goliath?  Not on a consistent basis it seems -- although Georgia Southern did beat the University of Florida this year.  

Earlier that Monday a particular golfer won the PGA opening event in Hawaii.  While being interviewed he said to the effect "I want to thank my family, friends, supporters and my Lord."  I am glad that he has a good relationship with Jesus Christ.  However, I am saddened to think of how attributing winning a golf tournament cheapens our understanding of God, faith and Jesus.  Does Christ Jesus really care about who wins a golf tournament when thousands of people are dying in Syria, the Sudan and countless other war ravaged areas of our planet?  When children starve to death around the planet do we really think God gives a whit about athletics?  When millions die from the lack of potable water, does making a six foot putt rank high on the list of divine priorities?

It is high time, I believe, to divorce faith from football in particular and all sports in general.  God does not care who wins a football game or a golf tournament -- at least the God I know through Jesus Christ.  Yes, having a relationship with God through Christ can give us peace and acceptance along with the ability to put the goals of the group ahead of personal achievement.  But, at the end of the day, God does not sit enthroned in the heavens and decide to pick winners and losers.

What God does care about is how we treat one another, how we live with one another, and how we touch "the least of these."  What God does care about is the ethics we share, the love we express, the relationships we develop and the care we give to one another.  God wants us to get out of our tribes, i.e., Seminoles, Tigers, etc., and relate to each other in love, encouragement and mutual support.

I have been a life-long fan of college and to a certain extent professional athletics.  I do believe that these can have a positive role in our communities -- but it seems to me that the tail is wagging the dog.  When we start invoking God on our side we have so trivialized God that we make a mockery out of all that we claim in the name of religion and faith.  When poverty and poor schools ravage the lower socio-economic groups while we spend billions on college and professional sports -- and then attribute winning to God -- we have taken the name of the Lord in vain.

So, pull for your team and cheer them on to victory!  There's nothing wrong with that.  Please, however, leave God out of it.  Somehow I think God would rather have it that way.

Monday, December 30, 2013

“The Peaceable Kingdom: Life in God’s Love”

Isaiah 63: 7-9; I John 4: 7-12
Well, we made it through Christmas 2013 — and seemingly in one piece!  Many of you have spent your holidays with family and friends and for a lot of us that meant traveling up and down the highways of our country.  It is always good to gather back again in God’s house on God’s day (but then all houses should be God’s houses and all days God’s days, shouldn’t they?) to worship, to praise and to celebrate our Lord and our faith.
Throughout Advent we have tethered ourselves to the prophet Isaiah — the one to whom early Christians looked more than any other to interpret the who, the what and the why of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.  Under the theme of the Peaceable Kingdom we have engaged in a short study of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  Through Isaiah we have looked at what it means for us to walk in the way of the Kingdom proleptically — in advance of its final fulfillment.  We have discussed whether sitting around anticipating a return of the Messiah is the best use of our time and energies.  We have renewed and refreshed ourselves in those “streams in the desert” provided for by our Lord.  Then, on Christmas Eve, we celebrated the reality that “a child is born…a son is given” i.e., in the Incarnation we have God’s own presence in our universe as the reality of that Kingdom.
Now, as we have come to the end of the Isaiah texts we find ourselves looking at life through the lenses of the other side of devastation and destruction.  Our text comes from what is known in scholarly circles as “Third” Isaiah (chapters 40-66.)  Seemingly much later than the Isaiah of earlier chapters, this Isaiah focuses not on the coming devastation — for it has already come.  The temple and city have been destroyed and lie in ruins.  Now the question is how to live while rebuilding?  Where is God in the aftermath?  Can Israel any longer consider themselves people of the covenant as they begin the process of removing the rubble and restoring the ruins?
Isaiah calls upon Israel to engage in holy memory — to remember that though judgment has come God’s final word is not wrath but love.  In God’s love will be their salvation and restoration…the covenant is not ended and their relationship not fully severed.  Though for their sin they have felt the vengeance of God, now they will know once more the hesed, the loving, forgiving and eternal presence of God.  Their hope for the future lies not in their goodness, but in God’s faithfulness.
As I read this passage this week I was preparing to preach a normal sermon on God’s love for us.  I made some mental notes about God’s love, how we experience it and how we ought to respond to it.  Then, in the middle of my meditation a new thought hit me, one which I have not dealt with in a very long time.  We talk so much about God’s loving us…but what about our loving God?  Jesus said that the greatest commandment to follow, the essence of true faith was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Do we love God?  We argue about God.  We certainly worship and fear/respect God.  But, the question remains:  Do we really love God?
As I thought about this it hit me that perhaps love of God is a missing link in our current/post-modern expressions of faith.  Most of us talk and argue about believing in God.  We are caught up in our day about whether God exists and whether we can even understand God to be loving given the reality of human suffering and evil.  What we never seem to talk about, at least in the circles of which I am a part, is our love for God.  What does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…?”  How do we love the One whom we believe called all of this universe into being and even invaded this existence on our behalf?  Love is about feelings and even passions — emotions we rarely associate with faith any more.
So, I started thinking, reflecting and even did a little search on my computer of past files.  Low and behold, a seventeen year old article from the esteemed Martin Marty addressed this very subject.  Dr. Marty, of the University of Chicago fame, quoted Dr. Edward Collins Vacek, a Jesuit priest: 
“Every age has its central religious concept. At one time the question of faith energized. Today Christians often answer the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ with little investment. The question Do you trust God?’ is more involving, but it still leaves in abeyance the way we live our lives. A question that will challenge all of us today is this: ‘Do you love God?’ That question evokes the endlessness of our hearts quest as well as the incomprehensibility of God, and it gives us an absorbing center of our lives.”
This quote woke me from my post-Christmas somnambulant state like the proverbial ton of bricks.  Have we so focused on the reality of God’s love for us that we have neglected what was a central focus for Jesus — loving God?  I thought over how the church spiritual fathers and mothers spent hours focusing on their love for God and Christ.  Their writings at times seemed to be virtual love letters as they poured forth from the depths of their souls their love for and devotion to Christ Jesus.  The mood, the warp and woof of these pages is so passionate as to move one to pause and reflect upon one’s own feeble faith in the process.  Are we passionately in love with Christ?  Or, is Christ more of a convenience than the focus, an option rather than a priority of our lives?  What does it mean for us, in the early stages of the 21st century, to love God?   What does that look like to us who so often lead with our minds rather than our hearts. How do we go about loving God?
Loving God means our focus is to be upon knowing God rather than knowing about God.  The idea is quite simple: we Christians spend far more time learning about God than we do developing a personal relationship with God, i.e., a relationship wherein not only are we known but we also know.  In spiritual growth there is an openness required if we are to know God.  We must look deep within and  reveal to God the very depths of our souls if we are to know God — for any type of in-depth personal relationship requires complete and total transparency.  As Dr. Bill Hale taught us years ago: YCKAMAAPTYAWTRAY.  (You cannot know any more about another person than you are willing to reveal about yourself.)  If we would know God then we must be willing to go deep within ourselves and share our fears, our failures, our drives, our desires, our hopes and aspirations with God.  
Loving God means our focus is upon loving others — living by a distinctively Christian ethic of love and grace.  In I John we find the challenge to be different from ours.  We do not claim to love God — only to believe in God.  In I John Christians were claiming to love God deeply and fully, yet they were treating one another with animosity and divison.  Jesus took the Jewish “Shema” of loving your neighbor as yourself — which meant to them your Jewish neighbor — and extended it across racial and ethnic lines to include any and all persons.  I John simply expands upon that interpretation:  “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  
For historic Christianity love of God is ultimately expressed not only in devotion to God, but in devotion to one’s brothers and sisters in need.  If one loves God then that love will be seen in how one treats those who are, as Jesus puts it, “the least of these.” 
It seems to me that there are at least three levels of loving God:
Loving God for our sake — we love God in return for God’s love and to be saved, i.e., to go to heaven when we die.
Loving God for God’s sake — we love God because of who God is and what God has done in Christ Jesus.
Loving Others for God’s sake — we love the other because of how we have experienced the love of God.
People say to me things like, “I want to see my church grow and reach people.  How do we accomplish that goal?”  My reply is simple:  Begin first by asking one question:  What does spiritual growth look like to God?  Follow that with another:  How we can work with the Spirit of God in accomplishing that ideal?  To answer in the language of the day, spiritual growth means growing to love God increasingly more each and every day until our lives are totally and completely encapsulated in Christ.
One of my heroes in the faith, Henri Nouwen, stepped out of a Harvard professorship and moved to Daybreak, a community in Toronto, Canada, for people with mental and physical disabilities.  He decided that loving God, for him, was now about service rather than success.  He once said to a group of Baptist ministers: “Ministry is the least important thing. You cannot not minister if you are in communion with God and live in community. A lot of people are always concerned about: ‘How can I help people? Or help the youth to come to Christ? Or preach well?’ But these are all basically nonissues. If you are burning with the love of Jesus, don’t worry: everyone will know. They will say, ‘I want to get close to this person who is so full of God.’”
On another occasion a well known Christian writer and youth leader, Mike Yaconelli, came for a lengthy stay with Dr. Nouwen and confessed later:  “I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus; I did not know what it meant to be with Jesus. ... I found it easy to do the work of God, but I had no idea how to let God work in me.”
There is an old expression in Christianity which is known as “Journey Inward…Journey Outward.”  Basically what it means is that the deeper our journey inward, to the very presence of Christ, the greater will be our extension outward — to our brothers and sisters in need.  So, I issue to all of us a challenge for 2014: Will you join me in making this the year in which we grow in our love for God?   Will you join me in making personal knowledge and spiritual growth the keys to our life of faith and church?  Maybe, just maybe, what we need is to know God in the depths of our souls?  I close with the words of a famous song from the Musical Godspell:
Day by day, day by day
Oh dear Lord, three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
To love thee more dearly
To follow thee more nearly
Day by day 

Sunday, November 17, 2013


The Emerywood Pulpit
“The Ancient-Future Church”
Micah 6: 8; Romans 12: 1-2
Where is the church going and what will it look like in the next 20 years?  This is a question I have had asked of me on a regular basis. In the church we are living through a cataclysmic revolution similar to what the Reformation must have felt like — only at warp speed (they had no smart phones, twitter, Facebook or the Cloud.)  Today transformation occurs in a matter of days and weeks, not decades or centuries.   The late 60’s and early 70’s were known as a period of great change — yet the pace was nothing like the present day.  Recently National Public Radio had a report about how churches in decline were having “beer and hymns” worship services in pubs and even church basements.  (I must admit that I never saw that one coming!) In other places blue jeans and tee shirts are being exchanged for robes, candles and altars as even “contemporary” churches are discovering the value of liturgical worship.  
All this rapid change is frightening to most ministers I know — for we were not educated to live in this world.  What is scariest is that often churches cannot cope with this change and so they batten down the hatches, thinking that if they can just keep the proper forms and methods of worship and church, then all will be well.  Personally, this makes me grateful to be pastor of Emerywood, a church which has never been afraid of change or newness.  Just as you were on the cutting edge in 1957 — and were roundly criticized for being so, so we are striving to move in those directions today.  There are those who see our attempt to transform our church and tell me that I am foolish, that it is impossible to modify a “modern” church into a “post-modern” one.  However, I have never been accused of backing down from a challenge, so, as I reflected upon our church, where we are, and the future ahead of us, I thought idea-sharing might be in order.  What will the church of the future, the church that survives and even thrives through this revolution, look like?
To begin with it will be a church which is never too quick to mirror the contemporary culture, but remains grounded in the past.  In another day Dean William Inge put it best:  “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself widowed.”  Before you think I am mixing my message and confusing myself and you, let me explain.
I do not think that the pure gospel of Jesus Christ needs updating or changing.  The content of the good news is the same.  What does need updating is the mode, the form in which the gospel is incased.  Just as the clothes which we wear become outdated and need changing, so the structures and forms of our churches are continually in need of renewal and remodeling.  This is why I have titled this sermon  the “Ancient-Future Church” — a term which I first heard from Dr. Robert Webber of Wheaton University.  The emphasis of “Ancient-Future” lies in returning as it were, into the first century, understanding the nature of the early church, and then working to recreate that church in 21st century culture.  The church of the future is the church which first goes back to the past (as much as possible) to gain its values and beliefs, and then comes forward to the present and on into the future with new forms and structures within which it will carry out its calling and mission.  Every generation does not have to reinvent the church, but every generation must re-focus the church in its purpose, calling and values.  These are what we lose as we get comfortable doing church the way we’ve always done it. The road to the future leads through our ancient past.
The Ancient-Future church will be one which focuses it's resources and energies on those areas in which it is particularly gifted and which are most effective and efficient in achieving their goals.  In the past churches tried to be all things to all people — rarely saying “no” to anyone.  However, in an age of declining revenues churches are discovering that they must prioritize their ministries.  No one church can provide everything to everyone…even the mega churches are discovering that this does not work. 
This emphasis on effective ministry means that we will now evaluate our personal faith and the life of our church by the nature of our Christian walk, by how well we follow the path Christ Jesus has laid for us and not by how many times we attend or how much money we give.  Many of us can remember when Sunday evening worship was the mark of a “true follower of Jesus Christ.”  The wide gate/road folks came on Sunday morning; the narrow gate/road folks, i.e., the true believers, came back on Sunday evening.  Now, few churches have Sunday evening worship as a warmed-over replica of Sunday morning.  Previously we evaluated people by how many times they showed up at church during a given week.  Now we know that even our best and most devoted members may be absent for weeks at a time.  The Ancient-Future Church will meet at those times and places which are most effective and not on someone’s ancient, farm-based calendar.  The Ancient-Future Church will be one which focuses on a faith walk and not an attendance record.
The Ancient-Future Church will be one which focuses on mystery, awe and wonder in worship.  Rather than using Powerpoint or printed sermon outlines to communicate, it will use imagery, including art and metaphor, as its primary focus.  For instance, we print Orders of Worship because we are mostly accustomed to reading something we can hold in our hands; we like print media.  The Ancient-Future Church will reject print media as too costly and ineffective and will instead use multi-media and all manner of art in worship.  Worshippers will be able to download images, liturgy and even sermons on their iPads.  Paper bulletins will become a relic of the past, much like the Gutenberg Press was in the last century.  This will result in a change in focus for worship:  experience/encounter of God rather than education will be the norm for worship in the Ancient-Future Church.
The Ancient-Future Church will be one which does not proclaim to have all the answers or to possess all the truth.  Taking its clue from the world view changes of a post-modern culture, the church will see truth as subjective and open to discussion and evaluation depending upon one’s criteria and experiences.  Theological truth itself will be understood more as metaphorical and less as literal.  For instance, in theological circles we have had 3-4 differing interpretations of the atoning death of Christ. I believe that in the future we will see dozens of interpretations — each illuminating an aspect of the Crucifixion which we have not previously seen.  This type of openness will spread to every dynamic of Christian thought as an incredible flow of creativity moves dynamically through the Body of Christ.  The Incarnation, the Virgin Conception, Creation and even the Resurrection will go through vast changes in meaning and understanding.  Who is to say that this is bad?  I happen to believe that it will be quite good and that the church which emerges will be stronger than ever, better able to relate to persons in all circles of human existence.
The Ancient-Future Church will formulate a discipleship which is focused more on “being like Jesus,” i.e., being incarnational and less on “being like Moses,” i.e., being legalistic and rules oriented. If we would mirror Jesus rather than Moses, then we must live out of the ethic of love rather than law.  Whereas Judaism came down hard on “sins of the flesh” Jesus refused to do so, saving his harshest condemnation for the “sins of the spirit,” i.e., the religious leaders whom he thought to have known better and whom he accused of keeping “sinners” out of the Kingdom.  To the “sinners” Jesus offered forgiveness and acceptance, i.e., love and grace.  
This pattern was not unnoticed by Paul — and in reading him we can see how he tried to move his understanding of ethical behavior out of the legalistic structure of Judaism and into the freedom of Christ.   At times Paul seems to be caught in the throes of moralism/legalism on the one hand and grace on the other.  However, on other occasions he reaches what seems to be heights that no one else could touch, as in our Romans 12 text this morning.  This passage calls us to the highest and greatest ethical norms — a mountain which could only be scaled through the transforming power of the Spirit: “…you be transformed through the renewing of your minds…” is how Paul stated the matter.  Grace, not law, leads us to the heights of ethical lifestyle.
As a result we are already seeing a dramatic shift in how the church views sex and sexuality.  Lifestyles are being accepted as normative which in the past would have received great condemnation.  The younger people I know are seeing sex and sexuality more from a cultural perspective.  They are not singling it out for focus as has the church of the past 200+ years.  The age of Puritanism had died for most people and that is a good thing.  How our views of morality work themselves out vis a vis sexuality is a matter that is still in process.  Even secular culture is beginning to see that sexuality without restraint is not a good thing.  The Ancient-Future Church will struggle with this — as did the Ancient Church itself!
The Ancient-Future Church will be one where serving, loving, and being are valued as the essence of true discipleship.  This church will emphasize “big issues or macro-matters” over “small or micro-matters.”  For instance, having a service of “Beer and Hymns” seems sacrilegious to those of us in the South.  We can recall the temperance movements, when the pious saints were those who did not let a drop of the “devil’s brew” pass over their lips.  Now, we know that the problem is not alcohol, but the disease of alcoholism — and that we can be a place where people with that disease receive acceptance, help, and healing.  Interestingly enough, there are European Baptist conventions which will serve beer but are appalled at American Baptists who smoked cigarettes.  Go figure.
As the Ancient-Future Church emphasizes “macro-matters” we will find ourselves working on issues such as world hunger, housing, potable water, sanitation, education and literacy in addition to touching people with the love of Jesus Christ.  These are far more important to us than whether someone smokes a cigar or has a beer.  The Ancient-Future Church will work to resolve major issues and not just by doing small projects one facet at a time.  I can see the time soon coming when housing projects, child care facilities, and senior care all come together under the rubric of a community of faith — clear from governmental intervention, control, or subsidy.  Rather than be known by what we are “against” we will be known by what we are for — or we will cease to exist.  Macro-matters will dominate our thinking as we move against the forces of evil and oppression.  
We will be a church which, in the words of Rachel Held Evans, will need larger banquet tables and rooms — for relationship/community will be a major focus.  Every time one turns around in the gospels we find Jesus at a party (that is my kind of Savior!)  The Ancient-Future Church will be one that throws bigger and bigger parties — and keeps inviting more and more outsiders to those parties.  In these parables of Jesus we find the King tearing up the “A” list and going to the “B” list time and again.  In the last 30 years we have re-discovered that more people are loved than coerced into the Kingdom.  We have been reminded time and again, that evangelism is about an ongoing relationship much more than about praying a prayer or walking an aisle.  I have spent much of my ministry listening to people telling me of scare tactics and worse used to entice them down an aisle and through the baptistry — all in the name of coming to know Christ.  The Ancient-Future Church will be one which understands salvation to be a life-long process and coming to Christ far more about relationship than repeating a canned phrase.  Further, participation in the Kingdom of God will be far broader than the membership rolls of any church or denomination.  The question, “To which church do you belong?” will be replaced by “Tell me about how you follow Jesus?”
We will be a church which will work better at Christian education than at indoctrination.  I am often appalled at what passes for Christian education in many of our churches and church schools.  Many strive to teach children “what” to think rather than “how” to think.  So many churches and “Christian schools” are tied to wooden, literalistic, outdated and even false interpretations of Scripture so that I am not surprised when young adults walk away from the church.  How dare we tell children to believe “Biblical facts” which are plainly contradicted by science?  Do they really believe the earth is only 6,000 or so years old when science says 13.7 billion or so?  Do we really expect our children to listen to us when we tell them that dinosaurs inhabited the earth with humans, despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary?  Is my faith so weak that it is tied to a literalistic reading of Genesis which is not even in accordance with the nature of the text or how Judaism understood it?  The Ancient-Future Church will espouse a faith which transcends such ignorance and leads us to a deeper and more balanced understanding of God and life.
In the future how we interpret and proclaim Scripture will change as with education more people understand the basics of Scriptural interpretation.  We will exchange the pulpit for a live microphone, and instead of a monologue we will have a dialogue about how we interpret Scripture and understand our faith.  The pastor will be the one who keeps us pointed toward God and hopefully sets the proper parameters for our interpretations.  The old New Testament principle of “Soul Competency” will be reborn in communities of faith around the globe.
The Ancient-Future Church will be a church which, I believe, will call people to a greater sense of personal responsibility for their actions and the results of their actions.  We will emphasize community over self — and stress the responsibilities we have as citizens of our world, our country and members of a community of faith.  The “connectedness” of life which we see in our communications and media will become front and center in our faith.  This connectedness will flow more relationally than it does institutionally — it will be more to each other and less to any particular church, denomination, or religious structure.  Those churches which connect with people will be those which grow. 
The Ancient-Future Church will be one in which missions/missional will not apply to just that which happens somewhere else, but will apply to all that a particular community of faith is and does.  Young people now tend to view church not as something to which they go to sit and soak, but as a dynamic, active group through which they serve.  This will only increase.  They see that a community of faith only has a couple of primary purposes:  community, which includes worship and relationship;  and ministry, i.e., providing a place through which one can live out one’s calling.  The days of institutional loyalty are over; the church is expected to prove itself time and again as to its worthiness and effectiveness in the world.
So, there you have one person’s vision of what is coming.  Do I agree with all of it?  Not necessarily — there are parts that I would change.  Will it happen for all at the same pace?  No — some churches will die before they will make the necessary changes to adapt to this new and vibrant age.  It is estimated that this year alone 8-10,000 churches will have closed their doors.  Many others are on life-support as 6-10 persons keep the doors open and the institution afloat.  However, when they die — and they are dying as they tend to be members of the Builder Generation born before 1946 — the rate of church death will become catastrophic.  
The reality is that just as the shopping habits of the public have changed, i.e., people no longer flock to shopping malls to make their purchases, so their worshipping and church habits are changing as well.  Dramatic transformation is already here and more is on the horizon.  Either we will adapt in the Spirit of Christ and become that Ancient-Future Church, or we will soon become irrelevant to the work of Christ.  The choice is ours.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262

November 17, 2013

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Thoughts at the End of Summer

As I read the paper and listened to the news the past two days, I became incredibly disillusioned and depressed by two events.  The news of chemical warfare in Syria, while not surprising given all the carnage of their “uncivil” war (what war is ever “civil?”) brought the reality of human existence to the fore.    In our church this weekend we hosted Al Staggs who gave us a memorable performance as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young Lutheran/German who returned to Germany from the safety of the US to be with his people and to be a part of the movement to oppose Hitler.  This courage wound up costing him his life.  As he performed I thought of the prison camps, the genocide, and of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and how otherwise good Christians participated in this horrific evil.  Then, to hear and read the reports from Syria brought all of this to an ever greater reality.  
The other was the MTV/VMA award program with the virtual pornographic act of Miley Cyrus.  No, I did not watch this program -- I would rather watch paint dry than MTV and have been that way since it came into existence.  What I did see was some snippets replayed and the shock reaction of those in the news media -- most of whom I thought were beyond any ability to be shocked.  Do these producers have young children?  What do they want their impressionable teens to grow up and emulate, anyway?  To be honest, the moral standards of MTV are non-existent, as their seeming only “god” is the Almighty Dollar.  They are out to make a buck -- and whether they have to sacrifice your children or mine on their altar is immaterial to them.
What are we to make of these events?  Are they connected in any way?  Of course they are, for at bottom they are both indicators of societies which have completely lost their moral compass.  When the standards of right and wrong become completely subjective, then we as a culture lose any sense of morality.  When “I” am the interpreter of my morality, then others are in trouble.  Now, before you lump me in with the Religious Right, understand that nothing could be further from the truth.  I am not that kind of Baptist -- never have been and never will be.  Legalism is the furtherest thing from my personal ethic or the ethic I believe that our society ought to uphold.  My ethical norms lead with grace, with forgiveness, and with kindness, compassion, and service to “the least of these.”  My favorite image of life is that we are all on a journey just trying to enjoy the ride which will end all too soon.  If we treat one another with grace and love, the journey will be a lot better for us all.
Wednesday, August 28th, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.  On that day in 1963 the USA was faced with our own face of immorality, that of a vicious racism that was endemic to our culture “from sea to shining sea.”  Having lived from the Southeast to the Northwest and in between, I can assure you that racism lived (and still lives) in every hamlet of every state.  It is part of our natural “sin” as human beings that we prefer those of our own tribe and look down upon those of other tribes.  Fifty years later and we have made great progress -- yet vestiges of our tribal past still remain embedded in our souls.  
The reality is that we humans can be vicious and evil creatures who can rationalize/justify any and every action under the sun.  I am sure that King Assad justifies his use by saying that these are rebels who must be destroyed if the country is to survive.  I am sure that MTV justifies their production by saying that this is art and what people want to see.  Decades ago the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr penned the classic “Moral Man and Immoral Society.”  His basic thesis was that while we may be moral as individuals, when gathered in groups we will do evil that we would never do as individuals.  Niebuhr was right, of course, but in the moment I am having trouble even believing that we are ever moral as individuals.  Brief moments...possibly.  Lifetimes...not so much.
It was C.S. Lewis who, when asked if he believed in total depravity replied, “I believe in sufficient depravity.”  Yes, we are all sufficiently depraved so that we can do anything under the sun for our “cause” and our “people.”  Without a moral compass, without some sort of moral code to guide and correct us, we are nothing more than the blind leading the blind..and God help us all as we stumble into the future.