Thursday, December 29, 2011

Contemplating the Directions for 2012

With the beginning of the New Year approaching, I have been contemplating the future directions of my blog. I want to begin digging more deeply into my focus on discipleship, and I am beginning to think of the project in terms of developing a “Disciple’s Lexicon.”

A “lexicon” focuses on the special vocabulary of a particular field of study; so my focus would be on identifying, understanding, describing, and explaining the basic concepts of all aspects of Christian discipleship. My plan is to focus on the meaning and significance of each word used in the New Testament that speaks of an aspect of discipleship. My goal will be to pull those words into a larger framework that will provide a comprehensive view of what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that I will be dropping an occasional focus on contemporary issues that capture my attention and call for consideration and reflection; but my goal will be to provide in short essays a detailed look at particular aspects of discipleship that fit into the larger picture of what discipleship involves. While I expect the project to evolve as I experiment with this approach, my goal will be to provide a compendium of ideas, characteristics, concepts, and perspectives that like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle will gradually give shape and substance to our understandings of discipleship.

I invite you to interact with me as we strive for a deeper and broader understanding of what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Anticipation and Impatience

The Christmas season is one of those times when we find ourselves torn between anticipation and impatience. The lyrics of Joan Javits and Philip Springer’s “Santa Baby” capture that tension with the eight-fold repetition of the plea for Santa to “hurry down the chimney tonight.” But the siren’s song is not so much a longing for Santa’s presence as it is for Santa’s presents.

The season’s excitement for every child no matter what the age is based on “What am I going to get for Christmas?” And, of course, the true Gift of Christmas is one that already has been given centuries ago but now has been lost in the clutter of Christmas wrappings and bows.

We are living and experiencing Christmas today, and in that experience we find the sweet anticipation of the giving and receiving of gifts and the cranky impatience driven by the insatiable desire for more and better and brighter gifts than ever before. Maybe in this year of economic “hardship” we will have tapered off a little from the wanton extravagance of the boom times of the past, but the commercial enterprise still far outweighs the spiritual. Can we recast the inherent impatience of this Christmas Day with an anticipation of an even greater Gift?

Some conservative religious traditions reject the idea of Christmas all together, pointing out that the word Christmas itself is a shortening of the Catholic “Christ Mass.” Christmas, to them, is a popish celebration. They fail to recognize that a mass is any act of worship in which the Eucharist, communion, or the Lord’s Supper is observed. These same folks often are turned off by liturgical language like “Eucharist,” failing to recognize that the term solely focuses on “giving thanks” for the sacrificial gift of Christ’s life for our salvation. Maybe what we need is to recover the Mass, the Eucharist, the giving of thanks on this day—not for the gifts we are receiving from each other, but for the Gift we already have received in the Incarnation and the Gift that we still anticipate in Christ’s coming again. Maybe our anticipation of Christmas should be focused on the Reappearing rather than on the first Epiphany. Maybe our impatience should reflect the longing desire and excited anticipation voiced in that Aramaic expression recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:22, marana tha, "Come, Lord!”

“Santa Baby” stands in sharp contrast with Baby Jesus. Maybe we can recapture today something of the true spirit of this day: less materialism, more reverence, more sacrifice, more giving thanks, and more longing for God to finish all that was begun in the first Christ Mass.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Defining Virtue

The “Santa Baby” songstress reminded Santa that she had been “an awful good girl” and “an angel all year”; but when it came down to describing what that meant, she crooned, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed. Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed.” Like many of us, she defined virtue by what she didn’t do rather than by what she actually did.

This kind of negative legalism seems to characterize too much of our religious ethics. We’re “good” because we don’t do anything “bad,” when actually we are bad because we don’t do anything good. The opposite of being “naughty” is to be “nice”—a word that interestingly enough comes to us from a Latin-Old French-Middle English tradition based on the concepts of being “ignorant, stupid, foolish, and lazy.”  That is a pretty good picture of a lot of contemporary expressions of "nice" ethical behavior.

The songstress continued, “Next year I could be oh so good, if you’d check off my Christmas list.” Much of our virtue is future-oriented like that: based on promises, anticipated actions, good intentions, and self-congratulations that flow from promises made rather than from delivering the goods. We want to get credit for what we intend to do rather than for our track record.

As a last resort, the songstress affirms, “I really do believe in you. Let’s see if you believe in me.” This kind of “belief” is not an expression of faith. It is a way of saying, “If you really exist, show me! I’ll believe in you if you fulfill my wishes. Give me what I want and what I ask for, and you’ll see how much I will believe in you. Show me the proof. Give me a sign. Give me tangible answers to my prayers. Prove to me that you are what you claim to be.” And it’s not just about Santa that we make those demands; we also make them of God. “If you exist, show me!”
Somewhere in my studies I recall faith being defined as walking as far into the darkness as the light we have will allow; and when the light fails, taking one more step. No faith is needed to walk in the light. “I really do believe in you” is not something we experience when we walk in the assurance of a lighted path. Our faith is exhibited when we are surrounded by darkness, uncertainty, doubt, and confusion. It is moving beyond the rational, the visible, the logical, the certain. It is letting go of ourselves, our strength, our confidence, and our demands for God. It is finding grace, hope, love, and assurance in the Unseen. It is flinging ourselves out into the unknown and trusting all to God. That kind of faith doesn’t grow out of our virtue, our strength, our power. If anything, it grows out of all our inadequacies. It is when our very living show, “I really do believe in You.”

Somehow that baby in a manger invites us in this season to step out in faith and say, "I really do believe in you--from the manger to the empty tomb."

Friday, December 23, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Intimacy and Reverence

The Christmas song “Santa Baby” is an obvious spoof, but an element of presumptuous intimacy is exhibited in the way in which Santa is addressed in the song. Nine times he is called “Santa baby,” twice he is addressed as “Santa cutie” and once as “Santa honey.” This over-familiarity is a common sign of the presumption that we can control and manipulate people in order to get our own way. The songstress offers a long list of desired gifts and wheedles them out of Santa by exploiting a presumed familiarity and intimacy. Santa is a big sugar daddy who will give her anything she wants. She offers to “wait up for you dear” and “be oh so good” if Santa will hurry down the chimney tonight.

Quite frankly, this is very much like the way that some people view God. God is a big Sugar Daddy in the sky who can be wheedled, coaxed, and enticed to give us what we want. Just ask, and God will fulfill your every desire. God will make you rich, meet all you needs, and remove every encumbrance so that you can have the full and abundant life that you so selfishly desire. God will “bless” you abundantly, fulfilling your every desire.

The birth of Jesus in many ways is the most intimate gesture that God ever made toward humanity. Through incarnation, the holy, the immortal, invisible God only wise entered into our human frame and dwelt among us. Jesus gave God a face and hands and feet. He walked among us, taught us, healed us, encouraged us, and invited us into the intimate relationship of becoming his disciples. But there was a risk in the incarnation—a risk that we would seize on the tangible and try to control it, manipulate it, and use it for our own purposes. For many of us, our relationship with God is little more than giving God the image of a Santa Baby who will give us what we want.

Somewhere in the intimacy we experience with God we can lose our sense of reverence. Because God has done something significant for us through Jesus Christ, we think that we are the center of God’s attention and should be the object of God’s benefaction. Perhaps in this Christmas season we need to recover something of the fear, awe, and reverence of the shepherds who first heard the news of Jesus’ birth. When their evening in the fields watching over their sheep was interrupted by an angelic messenger, Luke tells us that “they were afraid with fear” (Luke 2:9 in the Greek), “sore afraid” (KJV), “terribly frightened” (NASB), or “terrified” (NRSV). A similar experience is recorded in Matthew 28:2-4 when an angel of the Lord appeared to the men guarding Jesus’ tomb. “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” If a single angel elicited such a response from brave guards, imagine the effect upon the humble shepherds of “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13). How can we possibly respond with less awe and reverence to the incarnation of the Holy One? Oh sure, a baby seems so innocent, harmless, and manageable; but this Baby Jesus is not a Santa Baby or a Sugar Daddy. He is the Gift incarnate—a gift far better than sables, convertibles, yachts, platinum mines, and rings—and a Gift that should drive us to our knees in reverence, awe, thanksgiving, and humility.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus #2

A gigantic leap is required from the simple request for “two front teeth” as all I want for Christmas to the list of what “Santa Baby” should supply. The “Santa Baby” list includes: a sable (coat), a light blur convertible, a yacht, the deed to a platinum mine, a duplex, signed checks, Christmas decorations bought at Tiffany’s, and a ring (“I don’t mean phone”). If that is not a classic expression of the materialism that has infected Christmas, I don’t know what would be.

Consider the contrast with the actual day of Jesus’ birth. Luke 2 is the classic source for the humble circumstances that surrounded the birth of the Christ-child. The popular “no-room-in-the-inn” scenario depicted by Luke shifts the focus, not to a stable (which is not mentioned in the biblical text), but to a “manger,” a feedbox, a trough for fodder, or a feeding place for animals (note references to “manger” associated with the birth in v. 7, with the angelic sign in v. 12, and with the shepherd’s encounter in v. 16).

No cave or stable or barn is referenced in the text, and the assumption of such often has been drawn from there being “no room for them in the inn” (v. 7, KJV). Actually the word translated “inn” more likely referenced a “guest room” (the other two uses of the Greek word in the New Testament are found in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 and denote guest rooms) and the word translated “room” (in “no room in the inn”) is the Greek word topos, which actually means “place.” The guest room’s space was filled, or it was so occupied as to make it an inappropriate place for childbirth. Exactly where Jesus was born is not stated in the text. The focus is on where the child was laid after being wrapped in strips of cloth after the Oriental custom. We have romanticized the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, making those circumstances even better than they likely were. Such a humble beginning for a “king” seems incredible, unless we perceive an incredible alignment of God’s interests with the poor, the humble, and the meek.

We know almost nothing about Joseph and Mary’s financial situation. As a skilled craftsman, Joseph probably made a respectable living. The unexpected pregnancy probably made the travel to Bethlehem for the census/taxation a welcomed opportunity to escape the gossip and slander that Mary might have faced in Nazareth. Still, we know nothing about how Joseph and Mary financed their trip; and when it was extended, no clue is given to how they supported themselves in Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel does give us several clues. Mary and Joseph evidently found ongoing housing in Bethlehem because, when the Magi found them, they were residing in a house (Matt. 2:11). Evidently Joseph and his family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Based on the information gained from the Magi, Herod ordered the killing of all male children who were two years and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem (v. 16)—implying the possibility that Mary and Joseph remained in Bethlehem for an extended time after the census/taxation. Then, warned by an angel, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt and remained there until Herod’s death. We know nothing about how Joseph supported his family during this time, unless we view the providential gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Magi as the resource that allowed them to live through the Herod threat (v.11).

The “Santa Baby” materialism seems more appropriate for the court of King Herod or the academy of the Magi, but it doesn’t fit the humble manger scene with itinerant shepherds giving witness to a humble birth. God’s provision of housing, resources for escaping Herod’s threat, and eventually establishing residence again in Nazareth keeps the focus pretty much on the basic necessities of life. And that presents the dilemma (or maybe “predicament” would be a better word to describe our situations, for “dilemma” implies two unfavorable alternatives): How will we deal with the blatant materialism that hovers over all we do at Christmastime? From the lavish gifts we give and receive, to the lavish decorations we display in our homes and our churches, we glorify the season so that a humble manger hardly has its place in it all. And the letting go of the extravagance of a heavenly throne for a manger-bed cannot be fully sensed when we exploit the gaudy and miss the “emptying” of an equality with God that took the form of a slave and was born in human likeness and humbled in human form (Philippians 2:6-7). Can we turn from the extravagant toward the mere wish of a “merry Christmas” that counters our materialism with the “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . humbled himself” (Phil. 2:5-8).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus

One of the first Christmas songs I recall from my childhood was a song written by Don Gardner in 1946 called “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” What a remarkable time 1946 was. Our country had slogged its way through a decade of the Great Depression and then had faced the horrific struggles of World War II. The time of so much loss was passing and on the horizon was the hope for a new age of peace and prosperity. The remarkable simplicity of the times is not seen merely in a child’s Christmas wish for two front teeth; it is captured in the reason for that wish, “Then I could wish you ‘Merry Christmas.’” Something in that simple desire reminds me that we all struggle to find and articulate the central message of this season.

I’m afraid that the greater reality of our Christmases today is found in a 1953 Christmas song written by Joan Javits (the niece of former Senator Jacob Javits) and Philip Springer. The song first hit the charts when sung by Eartha Kitt; but in the intervening years (unlike Don Gardner’s song, which has virtually disappeared), every Marilyn Monroe type blonde-bombshell seems to have added this song to her repertoire. The “Christmas” song is “Santa Baby.” (Check out the lyrics here: You also will find on the internet many videos of those who have sung the song through the years.)

I’m afraid that Santa Baby’s original tongue-in-cheek spoof of Christmas has become reality in our time. When Christmas decorations compete with Halloween, when Black Friday spills over into Thanksgiving Day, and when our entire economy seems to depend of a successful “Christmas season,” you begin to sense that, not only has “Santa Baby” overtaken “All I Want for Christmas,” it has overtaken “Silent Night” and all of the true Christmas sentiments.

Over the next four days I want to focus on aspects of the Santa-Baby society as it contrasts with the Baby Jesus incarnation. I hope these reflections will help you stop and think about what Christmas means to you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Missionaries Just Need to Have (“Humane”) Fun

I want to focus one more time on the missions book, Repaid a Hundredfold, by Charles Alexander Leonard, Sr., because he did something in telling of his missionary experiences that I have not seen anyone else do. He included in his book two chapters with a total of 56 pages (over 16% of his book) focusing on the important role that recreational activities played in his missionary experience. After reading his chapter on what missionaries do (see my November 7 post), I gained an appreciation for the long hours and the physically and mentally demanding responsibilities that missionaries in pre-Communist China faced. As I stated previously, just reading about all he did made me tired. The wide range of responsibilities, the long hours, and the arduous travel had to be physically exhausting. Chapters 14 and 15 of his book, however, gave me insight into how he coped with the heavy demands of being a missionary in a foreign culture.

“Hunting and Fishing in North China and Manchuria” (chapter 14) and “Sportsmen as Kindred Spirits” (chapter 15) detail Leonard’s passion for hunting and fishing that, though certainly not equal to his passion for missions, rounded out my understanding of the man behind the missionary persona. Though he had never owned a gun or a fishing rod prior to his deployment to China, Leonard took the advice of an esteemed missionary to China whom he had heard speak during his seminary days. The advice was: “It is almost imperative for one to have a change from time to time, if one is to do one’s best work.” This missionary had used hunting as “recreation of mind and heart” and for “building up my physical being.”

Leonard took the speaker’s advice and became an enthusiastic sportsman, who enjoyed every opportunity that came his way to break away from his heavy daily responsibilities and to spend some time hunting and fishing. He tells stories of his hunting and fishing expeditions with the same intensity that he applied to the stories of his missionary work. The physical trophies of his recreational pursuits seem to provide some tangible victories that most of us need when we work intently in the somewhat ephemeral area of the spirit. Leonard was proud of his guns and fishing equipment. He was buoyed by the trophies of the game he took. He enjoyed fellowship with other sportsmen. He shared the game he bagged with Christian schools, church members, and neighbors, who often lacked nutritious protein in their diet. And he benefited from the physical exercise that helped keep him well and strong through 60 years of continuous active service.

Not being a hunter and not being very interested in fishing (even though I live on a lake), I found some of Leonard’s stories kind of gory; but one sentence in these two chapters really captured my attention. On one expedition, Leonard was fishing with a kind of competitive spirit alongside some of the locals. As always, the fishermen were sharing stories and talking about their equipment. Leonard noted that they were using live bait but commented that he was using an artificial lure, which he classified as “more humane.” I found that comment rather ironic. Most of the time Leonard used live bait. All of the fish and game he bagged were live when he caught or shot them. The consideration of what is humane and inhumane has a spiritual dimension, and it is one we ought to reflect on occasionally with sensitivity.

Some religious persuasions make a case for not taking any form of life. Interestingly, the Buddhism that was practiced by many in China in Leonard’s day held that persuasion. We face the similar issues with vegens in our society. For the past 30 or 40 years, the President of the United States has spared the life of the White House turkey each year at Thanksgiving time—even while hundreds of thousands of turkeys are being consumed with gusto. We are divided on the status of embryos, fetuses, and death-row inmates. We can’t even agree on whether war is humane or inhumane, and we tend to focus on “innocent” casualties in assessing the toll of war.
As is the case in so many ethical considerations, upsides and downsides of our choices often leave us in a quandary. I would hope that the things I do consciously can be done with the gusto of a Charles Leonard. I too think recreation is important, as is a day of Sabbath, or a Sabbatical leave, or a vacation, or even a year of Jubilee. Maybe Paul summarized it best in Colossians 3:17 (NASB), “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” I have no doubt that Charles Leonard lived by that verse. I hope I can too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Trusting God for Daily Bread

The Bible study for yesterday’s International Sunday School Uniform Series lesson focused on the Lord’s Prayer. Not only is this a familiar Scripture passage, but it also is one that most Christians memorize. Many churches include this model prayer frequently in their liturgies. As is often the case, familiarity breeds . . . well, maybe not contempt, but at least indifference. We say the words so frequently (and often in the archaic King James Version) that we can become numb to its meaning.

I teach a Bible study class composed of Korean students associated with Carson-Newman College. Though we generally have the Scripture read in Korean, my teaching is solely in English. This means that in the case of a New Testament study like we had yesterday, I am moving from an English Bible text back to the text of the Greek New Testament and finally giving my expositions in English with occasional pauses for some particular point to be translated into Korean.

Yesterday as I tried to apply the Lord’s Prayer to our experiences as disciples, I found myself captured by the clause, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Most of us have at one time or another been introduced to alternate translations like, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow.” The Greek text states, “Our bread for tomorrow give us today”—though the exact meaning of “for tomorrow” is disputed. The Greek word sometimes is used for “today,” thus yielding “our bread for the current day.” At times its meaning is closely associated with the actual components of the word itself, which literally means “necessary for existence,” thus yielding “the bread we need to live.” More frequently, scholars think it refers to “the following day—tomorrow,” thus yielding “our bread for tomorrow.” Scholars have attributed all kinds of meaning to this expression. Some see an eschatological dimension to the petition, beseeching God to give us the promised blessings of the future right now. Understood this way, the clause parallels the invocation, “Thy kingdom come.”

I’m inclined toward the meaning, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow.” If we ask only for today’s bread, we will awake each morning with anxiety for that day’s sustenance. Each new day would have to begin with a petition for that day’s bread, and the issue of our basic sustenance would always be a high level of concern. This might well keep us focused on our dependence upon God, but I don’t think we could ever have the full and abundant life that Jesus promised if what’s on today’s menu is always an issue.

But think what it would mean for us to always have tomorrow’s bread in hand today. The assurance that our needs today were handled yesterday and our needs for tomorrow are already met sets us free to focus on life today as children of “our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9), as citizens of God’s “kingdom” (v. 10), as devoted followers on earth of God’s heavenly “will” (v. 10). This relieves us of the need for storing up “treasures on earth” (vv. 19ff). It resolves the tension between serving “God and mammon [wealth or money]” (v. 25). It frees us like “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field” to set aside worry about food and clothing and to focus on seeking first God’s “kingdom and righteousness” (v. 33). What a transforming experience we could have if we recognized that God is giving us tomorrow’s bread today.

But let me make another observation about this passage. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for a community of faith, not solely for individuals. The only singular pronouns in the prayer refer to God. All the rest are plurals—our’s and us’s. We pray this prayer as a community of faith. All of our “my’s” and “mine’s” are blended together into “our’s.” When God answers this prayer, I believe it is answered in the plural and not in the singular. God gives us today our bread for tomorrow.

Jesus asserted that when forgiveness of trespasses, debts, and sins is found within the community (vv. 12,14-15), the church will find forgiveness (v. 14) and will store up treasures in heaven (vv. 20-21). In a similar manner, I believe that God most often answers the “give us today our bread for tomorrow” through the community that shares together its abundance and supports each member who is in need. In that sense, the prayer for our bread of tomorrow finds its answer first in the abundance found within the community of faith. Withholding abundance parallels the failure to forgive and has eternal consequences.

It was a liberating experience for me to discover in this prayer of promise that God will today supply my needs for tomorrow. It was a disturbing experience for me to discover that the community of faith that prays this prayer has high accountability in answering the petitions in the prayer—especially when it is the universal church of which I am a member that prays the prayer and that expects us together to be God’s answer, providing tomorrow’s bread today from the abundance within God’s community of faith.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What Missionaries Do

Charles Leonard devoted an entire chapter in his book, Repaid A Hundredfold, to what he called ”Varied Activities and Responsibilities.” This really is an insightful chapter about what missionaries were able to do during the first half of the 20th century in China; but even more, it is a testimony to the unflagging devotion that many American missionaries demonstrated in their efforts to spread the gospel around the world. The chapter is 23 pages long, but it seemed much longer—perhaps because of the breadth, depth, and intensity of the work. The missionary’s days from sunrise to late into the evening were filled with a multitude of activities often complicated by difficult travel, economic hurdles, and struggles with foreign languages and strange customs. Daily these missionaries faced multitudes who were plagued by poverty, disease, superstition, ignorance, and exploitation.

I was most impressed by the breadth and balance of the missionary efforts in China. In a time when mission boards have shifted to a narrow focus on evangelism and starting churches, the mission in China was broad-reaching and comprehensive. Compassionate ministry to every aspect of human need was central. Economic, social, physical, vocational, and spiritual needs were in focus. Establishing preaching points and starting churches was a central strategy; but schools, hospitals, and publishing ventures also were integral to the comprehensive efforts undertaken. Indigenous workers were trained, equipped, and employed to multiply the missionaries’ efforts. Cooperation with Christians of every stripe was evident, from the Russian Orthodox to the Presbyterians to the YMCA. No area was neglected if it held the hope of making life better for people whose needs far surpassed the narrow spiritual focus that often consumes contemporary missions and ministry.

I suspect that few missionaries today can be as open and visible in their ministries as were the Leonards and other early missionaries to China. Political restrictions certainly are more severe. Nationalistic and Islamic influences raise restrictive barriers. An awareness of the secularization of our own society is too obvious through worldwide access to the media. The “do-it-all-on-our-own” mentality restricts cooperative efforts with other Christian groups and agencies. Evangelistic apathy infects many of our churches, and many other churches are infected by a narrow focus on saving souls with little regard for the whole person.

We still need a comprehensive and balanced vision of missions; and missionary pioneers like Charles Leonard can provide an inspiring model of the kind of selfless dedication, expansive compassion, visionary focus, and cooperative effort that will stretch our own missionary endeavors.

I was pleased to see an Associated Baptist Press release last week of a modern-day missionary to China, Judy Sutterlin who, working under the aegis of the American Baptist International Ministries, continues to work with the broad perspective of pioneers like Charles Leonard. She recently received the Charity Award in the Jiangsu Province of China for her work in improving people's lives and promoting social harmony. May more follow in the footsteps of Leonard and Sutterlin.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Slow Boat to China

Frank Loesser penned the lyrics in 1948, and Kay Kyser first recorded the song, “Slow Boat to China.” That song came to mind as I read Charles Leonard’s book, Repaid a Hundredfold. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and America’s entrance into the war, Leonard (who already had been withdrawn from Manchuria) was asked by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to head up an international relief program in western China. This program was administered by the International Y.M.C.A. Headquarters in New York. Chapter 13 in his book, “Famine Fields of Free China,” tells of his travel to China from New York and his two years of work in humanitarian relief efforts during World War II.

This cooperative spirit of working with other groups was an original hallmark of Southern Baptist missions and missionaries. Much of that spirit has been lost in the last couple of decades. When doctrinal purity takes precedence over human needs (both physical and spiritual), missions begins to look more like the proselyting efforts of the Pharisees in the New Testament than the ministry of Jesus to the poor, sick, and oppressed. The entire ministry of Charles Leonard is a testimony of cooperation with anyone who shared a commitment to care for the poor, the needy, and the lost. In both World Wars he linked up with other agencies to address critical needs, and this was done with the blessing and commitment of the Foreign Mission Board. Unfortunately, cooperation like that today too often requires passing a litmus test of orthodoxy.

Those of you who have read stories about Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, and other pioneering missionaries are familiar with how arduous travel was before the advent of air travel. We are now able to travel to China by air in a single day. When I first went to Taiwan in 1964, three days was more the norm. Charles Leonard’s trip took two months, but that was greatly influenced by the fact that he was traveling during a time of war when German submarines in the Atlantic and Japanese submarines in the Pacific threatened all ocean travel. The two months were not wasted, however. Leonard used this time to write the first draft of his book, which was not published until two decades later.

One other sacrificial aspect of this assignment is that Charles Leonard left his wife and three children in the United States and was separated from them for two years while he addressed these humanitarian needs. Many American soldiers faced similar separations, but this assignment was voluntarily accepted and willingly embraced out of a compassion for the human suffering being experienced by the Chinese people under Japanese threat. “There was a great need and a tremendous opportunity for service to God and my fellowman in famine-stricken China, where thousands were starving for food and millions without a knowledge of God and His gospel,” Leonard wrote of his waving goodbye to his wife as the convoy of 50 ships set sail.

Departing New York, the flotilla sailed down the eastern seaboard of the US, traveled through the Panama Canal, down the western coastline of South America, swung two or three hundred miles south of Cape Horn, and then headed east for 3,600 miles to the southern tip of Africa. Crossing the Indian Ocean, they landed in Bombay but had to sail on to Karachi traveling by night because every berth was taken in Bombay. From Karachi, he traveled by train back to Bombay. There he sent copies of the first manuscript of his book to the American Embassy in Bombay, to the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, and to his wife. Three more days of train travel brought him within range for a final 12-hour military flight over the Himalayas to Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China. Some of the refugees he met there had fled 2,000 miles from eastern China to escape the Japanese invasion. To them, even Charles Leonard’s arduous journey had been “first class” travel.

We need more people like Charles Leonard today—people of compassion and commitment who are willing to set aside their comfort and ease to address the humanitarian and spiritual needs of the 7 billion people in our world. Thousands are still starving for food and millions are without a knowledge of God and the gospel. God still asks, “Who shall I send, and who will go for me?”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Lessons from a Missionary’s Experience

Marilyn Barr is a fellow church-member of mine who knew something of my interest and personal experiences in China. She recently sent me via Evelyn a book about a Southern Baptist missionary whose career had focused on China and Manchuria. The book, Repaid A Hundredfold (Eerdmans, 1969) was written by Charles Alexander Leonard, Sr., a missionary sent to China in 1910 by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Since the book came unexpectedly and without comment or guidance, I set it aside for a while. I recently came back to the book and began to read its most interesting account of the life and work of a Southern Baptist missionary in the first half of the 20th century. After reading most of the book, I ran into Marilyn at church and mentioned how much I was enjoying the book and learning from it. Only then did I discover that Charles Alexander Leonard, Sr. was her grandfather.

For 10 weeks in 1964, I served as a student summer missionary in Taiwan. There I met several missionaries who had served in China before the Communist takeover. They told me exciting stories about the “Shantung Revival” (now called the “Shandong Revival”) that had taken place in China prior to World War II and before the Communists drove American missionaries out of China (around 1949). I confess that my first interest in reading Charles Leonard’s book was primarily to see how many of these missionaries that I had known personally would appear on the pages of his book.

When I talked with Marilyn and discovered that this was the story of her grandfather’s ministry, I had only run across familiar names like Lottie Moon and Bill Wallace, both made famous by their ministries and sacrifices in China, but neither of whom I knew personally. A few other names were familiar because of the leadership roles they assumed later at the Foreign Mission Board. But by that point in the book, Leonard had drawn me into his book and into amazement at his ministry in China. I had almost forgotten that I was looking for names of missionaries that were familiar to me.

Only in the last chapter (“Stories of Human and Spiritual Interest”) did I finally see a few names appear of missionaries that I had known. One of them, Dr. C. L. Culpepper, actually wrote a very kind letter to me that was delivered at the Taipei airport as I was leaving to return home. He apologized for being unable to see me off but graciously thanked me for my work in Taiwan that summer. [His daughter gives a tribute to him in the following video about the Shandong Revival: .]

In my next few blog posts, I will share some of my reactions to Charles Leonard’s book and some insights I have gained from reading his story.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Aunt Irma

Irma Margaret Richardson Holt Wood was born on October 24, 1915, and celebrated her 96th birthday yesterday. It has been over a year since I last visited with her in the Alabama town, Sylacauga, where I was born in the midst of World War II and where my mother and I lived either near and with her while my dad was in the Pacific arena. In fact, I went straight from the hospital to Irma’s home after I was born. That foreshadowed a long history of closeness with this special aunt.

Irma was born 14 months before my mother (Mom’s birthday was Christmas Eve, 1916), and the closeness of their ages engendered a special bond between them. My Mom had four sisters and two brothers, and all of them were especially intelligent and gifted. The first daughter, Mable, was the only college graduate among the siblings. All of the rest had the capability; but because they mostly came of age during the Great Depression, the cost of financing college degrees was prohibitive. Mom always said that Irma gave up the opportunity to go to college so that both of them could attend a business school instead.

Irma’s first child, Margaret, was born about 4-1/2 months after I was. Her second child, Marilyn, was born about two months before my sister. Though these cousins lived 40-50 miles away during my school years, they were my sister and my closest relatives and friends as we grew up. We seemed to spend together every holiday that was worth celebrating; and during the summer months we would spend weeks together. The closeness of our family relationships yielded a rather uncommon familiarity. Titling this post with “Aunt Irma” seems almost awkward, because we children all called our aunts and uncles by their first names, rarely preceded by “Aunt” or “Uncle.”

Irma’s first husband, Thurman Holt, was an independent grocer and was my substitute father for my first couple of years when my Dad served overseas in the Army. Thurman died as the result of botched surgery in the mid-50s, when malpractice lawsuits were almost unheard of. His grocery business already was suffering from the introduction of a chain grocery store in Sylacauga. I recall that his final surgery was for stomach ulcers. Irma, a stay-at-home Mom, was left pretty much penniless with two school-aged daughters. One of my uncles assisted her in getting a job as a bank teller, and she worked at that bank in jobs of increasing responsibility until she retired. With some assistance from that same uncle, she was able put both of her daughters through college; and both became gifted teachers.

Later, after I had started my college and seminary work and was away from the frequent family get-togethers, Irma married Robbie Wood, a kind and gentle man, who provided a level of comfort and security that she had not known before. Robbie’s family welcomed Irma and has continued to give attention and care to her even after Robbie’s death years ago.

Irma’s got a birthday card from me yesterday (if the Postal Service cooperated), but that card is a most inadequate symbol of what she has meant and continues to mean to me. She and an uncle who married my mother’s youngest sister are the last of the generation before me. Both are still in relatively good health. After these two and one older surviving cousin, I am now the fourth oldest member of the Richardson clan. I hope I can live with the faith, grace, strength, endurance, and optimism that my aunt Irma has modeled. Just think of all that she has experienced and seen since 1916. She is a family treasure. My love goes out to her on her birthday, though again I am far away.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Feeling Good About Being "Average?"

Gotcha feeling good about being “average,” did I? Well that was a sucker punch. Let’s talk about what really is average. World-wide, the top 1% own 43% of the world’s assets. The richest 10% own 83% of the world’s wealth. If you have assets of $4,000 after deducting your debt, you are in the wealthiest half of the world’s population. And here’s the real kicker: Half of the global population together possess less than 2% of global wealth. So half of the world’s population have an average total net worth of less than $60. Consult your check book or your credit card statement and see how far $60 would go. I’m feeling a little better about not being average, but I am not feeling better about where the other half find themselves, staring into the face of hunger, want, and need.

Statistical resources:

Tyler Durden, “A Detailed Look at Global Wealth Distribution,”

Are We Really "Rich" Americans?

We have always been told that we Americans are blessed. We are the wealthiest nation in the world and are viewed with envy by the rest of the "poor" world. In fact, we Americans make up 4.5% of the world's population, and we control 39% of the world's wealth. That is an enormous imbalance. But I don't feel so "rich." Do you?

Well, the recent focus on wealth in the USA might explain why we don't feel so rich. We now know that 10% of the people in the USA hold 90% of our nation's wealth. When you put that information in a global perspective, the reality hits home. The top 10% of America's wealthiest comprise 0.45% of the world's population, but they control over 35% of the world's wealth. The rest of us Americans (4.05% of the world population) have 4% of the world's wealth. Hey! That makes us pretty "average!"

Statistical resources:
US population of 307,007 million with a world population of 6.775 billion.
39% of world's wealth from Jack Ewing, ""America's Dominance in Global Wealth Is Slipping," New York Times (September 14, 2010)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Write This Down

I often begin my day with some fitness exercises. While I exercise, I usually am tuned in to Pandora, the online music station that plays “your favorite music.” I have eclectic interests in music—from religious to Broadway musicals, from ballads to barbershop quartet, and from the Carpenters to Johnny Mathis. Pandora takes my expressed preferences and regularly tests those interests by proposing other similar styles that might be of interest to me.

Although I lived in Nashville for 25 years, I am not a great fan of country music; but Pandora continues to push my interest in ballads in the direction of Country and Western. Some of their suggestions I like; some I do not. The problem is this. Whenever I don’t like a song for whatever reason, I have to stop in the midst of my exercises and go to my computer to click on the “thumbs down” button. Frequently I just let it pass rather than interrupting my exercise routine.

Today was one of those days. Pandora introduced me to George Strait singing “Write This Down,” a country song written by Dan Hunt and Kent B. Robbins. My first inclination was to “thumbs down” this one, but I let it play as I continued my exercises. I’m glad I did, because I surprisingly found some significant religious themes in the song.

When Strait began to sing, “You can find a chisel; I can find a stone. Folks will be reading these words long after we’re gone,” my first thought was of Moses and his tablets of stone. And while Moses was receiving the Torah, the nation was constructing a golden calf. That seemed especially poignant because the words being written on the stone in George Strait's song were: “I love you, and I don’t want you to go.” Suddenly I was reminded that this is the fundamental core message of the Bible. God is saying, “I love you. I don’t want you to leave me or forsake me. I’ve written these words of Scripture to (in Strait’s words) ‘tell yourself I love you and I don’t want you to go. Write this down. Take my words. Read ’em every day. Keep ’em close but don’t let ‘em fade away. So you’ll remember . . . .” Then in the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:7-9, the song continues: “So use it as a bookmark. Stick it on your frigerator door. Hang it in a picture frame up on the mantel where you’ll see it for sure.”

So, write this down: “God loves me and wants me to stay close.” The reminders were written in stone on tablets and painted with blood on a cross. I need the reminders every day. I need to keep those words close and not let them fade away.

So write this down today, literally and figuratively: “God loves me and want me to stay close today—and every day.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Renewal of Marriage Vows

I have been asked to assist in the renewal of marriage vows for a couple of friends. Here is the ceremony that I have been working on. I would welcome your comments, evaluation, and feedback.

When asked to participate with you in the renewal of your marriage vows, the first idea to pop into my mind was the word faithfulness. As is often my custom, that thought sent me to the dictionary to explore this idea of faithfulness. The suffix of the word, the “-ness” part of it, conveys the idea of an instance or state of being, or a quality of being. That idea reminded me that part of what we attempt in marriage is to take the instance of making pledges in a marriage ceremony and extending those pledges into a state of practicing those ideals throughout our lives. So when we take a person as our lawfully wedded spouse—when we make marriage vows to love, honor, cherish, and obey—and when we pledge ourselves to our spouses and to them alone, we are establishing some standards by which faithfulness can be measured and some guideposts by which we can assess our progress through this most intimate of human relationships. As believers, we set all of this in the context of a covenant made with each other, before God, and in the presence of witnesses.

That definition almost immediately reminded me that faithfulness is one of the most prominent descriptions in the Scriptures for God’s relationship with God’s people. The words “faithful,” “faithfully,” and “faithfulness” are used 160 times in the Scriptures; and about three-eighths of those occurrences use the words to describe God’s faithfulness. That explains why Thomas O. Chisholm in 1923 penned the words to that timeless hymn praising God, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Phrase after phrase in that hymn remind us of the divinely inspired image of what faithfulness means when we follow God’s example of faithfulness. With God there is “no shadow of turning.” God “changest not.” God’s “compassions … fail not,” what God has been God “forever wilt be.” The seasons of the year; the sun, the moon, and the stars; and “all nature” give manifold witness to God’s “great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” God’s pardon, peace, and presence cheer us, guide us, strengthen us, and give us “bright hope for tomorrow.” The refrain of the hymn asserts that “all I have needed, Thy hand hath provided” as each morning brings new mercies to us.

That kind of faithfulness is a worthy goal for us in our marriages; but frankly, the goal is way too high for us--and we can say that from two perspectives. No one of us will ever find a spouse who can fulfill our every need in every way and in every instance; and none of us can be a spouse who will be the perfect answer to all of our spouse’s needs. Marriages are not perfect because we are not perfect people. The expectations of perfection that we sometimes bring with us into marriage are quickly discovered to be unrealistic. Some people can’t handle that discovery, and either they create a make-believe life out of ignoring the imperfections in themselves and in their spouses, or they become disillusioned and either live a lifetime of muted disappointment or break up the marriage in hopes that someone else can become their “perfect spouse.”

What we are doing here today is to seek another path that steers us between disillusionment on the one hand and dissolution on the other. We are imperfect people in imperfect relationships—but, so what? Where did we get the idea that we could be perfect or that our spouse would be perfect? Why do we imagine that some other “perfect person” might be out there who could change things? Why does the reality of imperfections disappoint us when we must honestly acknowledge that we ourselves are imperfect?

Renewing vows is not a cure-all. It is not a magic potion or a remedy that can correct, counteract, or remove our imperfections. It is, rather, what the initial marriage vows were intended to be. It is a pledge to make a sincere effort to devote yourself and all you are to another person because you genuinely love that person. You want to be with that person--to live, to love, to support, to endure, to assist, to uplift, to strengthen, to forgive, to embrace, to enjoy so long as you both shall live. In this, the traditional marriage vows continue to have meaning: “I take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

These words that pledged faithfulness were somewhat empty words when you were first married, because you had little of the shared experiences with the better or the worse, the richer or the poorer, the sickness or the health. Now you know so much more. You have experienced so much together. You have had good times and bad. You have had ups and downs. You have had sickness and health. You have had gentle peace and the expected conflict. You have dealt with each other in each of your best and worst personas. And yet, through all of this, you have returned to this sacred time and this scared place to say:
  • I truly love you, and I want us to spend the rest of our lives together.
  • I pledge to you anew my constant love and faithful devotion.
  • I beg your forgiveness for where I have failed you in the past.
  • I plead for your patience for where I surely will falter in the future.
  • I pray that God will strengthen me as I strive to meet your needs.
  • And I pray the God will bless you through me as we walk together in love.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Will There Be Golf Courses in Heaven?

Back in May I discovered an on-line computer game called World Golf Tour. This game allows you to play games of golf on digitized versions of actual golf courses in competition with other “golfers” in a live, interactive computer simulation. Through experience in this competitive context, I have worked my way up to being a “Tour Pro” whose average golf score is 71. Since I am better at computer golf than I am in real-life golf (where 90 is a pretty good round for me), this fantasy golf experience has been a lot of fun. It also has opened up some windows to the world.

Recently my “foursome” was made up of players from India, South Africa, and the Netherlands. If I play early in the morning, my playing partners often are from Europe. Each player has an avatar (mine is a handsome young athlete) and an on-line name (mine is “elfreport”). You can become “friends” with other players you encounter in the competition, and my friends list grows steadily. You also can play various versions of golf. I especially enjoy the alternating shot games where two teams compete against each other with the members of each team hitting alternating shots. You often are matched up with someone you don’t know.

Players communicate through instant messaging. Some games have little interaction; others are constant talk-fests. Encouragement and advice can be shared with your teammate, and good-natured ribbing can be directed at your opponents. Occasionally you will get a “trash talker” who tries to bully, intimidate, and mess with your mind to gain an advantage in the game. Occasionally the game locks up unexpectedly. My biggest frustration so far came when the system seemed to lock up after one of my tee shots and my opponent dropped out of the game. After he quit and I was playing solo, the system came back up. My shot was completed, and I got an unwitnessed hole-in-one.

I’ve played against opponents from age 12 to way past my 68 years. Most of the players are male, but women play regularly and have no compromised skills because of their gender. I’ve played against gentle spirits and fiery competitors. Far too many players quit the game if they are having a bad round that will affect their handicap, and the really inconsiderate quit by closing their game without using the menu and lock up the game for the rest of the players. Some play while they are at work and complain when their play is interrupted by “business” or when their boss interferes with their play.

I’ve been contemplating how a Christian “athlete” should interact on World Golf Tour. Yesterday I was playing against a guy who I think was probably a high school senior. I discovered that he was from Georgia, and I mentioned that I had gone to Georgia Tech “way back when” (only later did I realized this in the 50th September since I started at Georgia Tech). He said that he was thinking about going to a technical college in Athens. I was just about to “introduce a Christian theme” into our interchange by asking if he knew one of my former students who had been a pastor in Athens; but then he hit three consecutive putts that rimmed out and let go with a serious profanity that took the Lord’s name in vain. I decided that that wasn’t the appropriate moment to speak “religiously.”
I have noticed a few “gentle spirits” on WGT who I think are communicating a kind of silent witness. They speak encouraging words to friends and foes alike. They offer helpful suggestions. They are upbeat and positive even when they hit one in the sand trap or lose a ball in the lake. Like me, they may say “ouch” when they hit a really bad shot; but something about their play communicates a positive spirit. I’ve tried to be that kind of player, but is that enough? I know some people are uncomfortable when playing a round of golf with a pastor or religious figure, but I wonder what Jesus would do? I’m sure he wouldn’t “heal” a persistent slice or make a ball “walk on water” across a water hazard onto the fairway. Would his every shot be perfect? If it weren’t, what would his reaction be? How would he deal with fellow golfers whose humanity showed through? And, oh yes, will there be golf courses in heaven?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let's See If I Have This Straight

A few of my recent posts from Facebook:
  • Let's see if I have this straight. Social Security is going bankrupt in the distant future because expenditures will outstrip the payroll taxes coming in. So the solution to our current problems is to reduce the payroll taxes that employers pay (that is the employer's part of Social Security) to stimulate employment so that Social Security can go bankrupt sooner for the greater number of workers who will be employed in the near future. Huh?
  • Let's see if I have this straight. It IS "class warfare" to ask the top 10% of Americans who are economically advantaged and control 90% of America's wealth to pay more taxes. It IS NOT "class warfare" to bust unions, cut Social Security, cut Medicare, cut college loans, cut funding for research on global warming, cut funding for education, advance "tort reform" (which makes it more difficult to sue for malpractice), and cut dozens of other programs that especially affect the bottom 50% on the economic scale. Somebody's "platform" shows whose waging war on whom!
  • Let's see if I have this straight. Only 1.6% of Americans inherit $100,000 or more from the estates of their deceased loved ones, yet we need to get rid of the “death tax” so that the 91.8% who don’t get any inheritance will be protected. In reality, if estate taxes are eliminated, 0.6% of Americans are estimated to receive over $1 trillion more in inheritances in the next decade. That explains why 18 super-rich families are providing most of the money that is supporting the efforts to eliminate estate taxes. Source: Professor G. William Domhoff, Sociology Department, University of California at Santa Cruz,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dress for Spiritual Success

I can recall a time in American life when Sunday was a dress-up day. The majority of people seemed to be in church on Sunday, and those who were in church dressed in Sunday attire that set the day apart as something special. In many locations “blue laws” actually spelled out restrictions based on religious standards that were designed to make Sunday something of a Christian Sabbath. Most of those laws have now been repealed, and the “enforcement” of special treatment for Sundays has pretty much passed from the scene. So has Sunday as a dress-up day.

The prevailing trend in most successful churches today is a “come-as-you-are” dress code. First came special days called “casual Sundays.” Then every Sunday became casual Sunday. Eventually dressing up for church became viewed as stuffy and somewhat elitist. Requiring or expecting some kind of dress code now is considered a major deterrent to getting people to attend church. Today’s “Sunday” attire is more akin to leisure dress on a level of or even more informal than “business casual.” Basically we have de-formalized dress not only for Sundays but also for weddings, funerals, and other special occasions.

Accompanying this trend toward casual Sunday attire has been a secularization of the day itself. No one misunderstands the pro football fans who dress in their team’s colors or even paint their faces to show their support for their team. By their dress and conduct, these fans know how to make an occasion special, to express commitment and show support for their team. Devout Christians are as likely as any others to rearrange their schedules, attend these games, and dress for the occasion. These out-of-the-ordinary dress and behaviors set the occasion apart from mundane daily life. It builds team spirit, develops a sense of extended community, and fosters a system of shared values that bind the fans together.

Christians were wrong in trying to impose faith on the entire community through “blue laws,” but I think we also have lost something in secularizing our days and times of worship. Something of the awe and grandeur of worship has been lost as we have made the occasions informal, folksy, and secular. A sense of the holiness of God and the sanctity of worship has been lost. We try to stir up emotions by swaying and clapping to popular styles of music. We try to make worship occasions friendly and inviting to outsiders by creating a comfortable setting that accommodates their daily experiences.

I think we need to retrieve the sense of something “special” in the Christian experience. Our times together with each other and in the presence of God need to be distinctly different from the secular and the mundane. The church building should be a special place. The “church time” together with family and friends should be special. The expressions of a “team” spirit, a common purpose, a mutual goal, a shared commitment, and a supportive community should make our times together unusual and extraordinary.

I am not sure of how we can best accomplish these goals, but I think we must begin to strive for a sense of specialness about our “game days,” our times of worship and study, our opportunities to grasp together the holiness and awe of God’s presence. One simple place that we can begin is in our “Sunday” dress. As we attire ourselves and dress our children, we can reflect, discuss, and intentionally shift our attentions away from the secular mundane toward the specialness of being together in the family of faith, in the presence of the holy God, in the place we call “church.”

How we dress is a minor spiritual practice that might not seem like much; but like every spiritual practice, with intention, purpose, and interpretation, our “Sunday dress” can create an attitude of preparation that shifts our minds from secular to sacred and adds a special significance to the times we spend together in church.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Fatal Flaw in the Tea Party Movement

When I first heard of the Tea Party a few years ago, I was strongly attracted to the idea. I generally was fed up by the machinations of the major parties and the polarized bickering that has become so common in every political discussion. Parties have their fixed agendas, and legislators seem swayed by the moneyed, who provide the funding for their next election. I thought, “The Tea Party. What a fresh idea! Turn the power back over to the people! That’s what democracy is all about.”

Of course, I am not one to take an idea seriously until I study it; so I went to the Tea Party’s website and read the mechanism by which the party was designed to work. This indeed is a people’s movement. People from local communities get together and decide what position the majority think should be taken on every major issue. They then select candidates to run under the Tea Party banner. Each candidate pledges to vote always and only in line with the position adopted by the local participants in the Tea Party. And that is the fatal flaw!

Yes, all of us get fed up when our legislators adopt positions and vote differently from what we think is best; but when you tie legislators absolutely to the views of their constituents, you eliminate the possibility of compromise. And that is where our nation is right now in trying to deal with the budget, the debt, appointments, and other legislative matters. When you have pledged to uphold the positions taken by your constituents without exception, you can do nothing to resolve gridlock.

If the Tea Party continues in its current mentality and succeeds, we will have 100 senators and 435 representatives in Washington, all of them locked into the interests of their particular state and their particular congressional districts. The Tea Party naively assumes that all Americans have the same interests. That is simply not the case. People from Idaho cannot understand the peculiar needs of large urban communities, and they certainly are not going to spend “their money” addressing the complex issues faced in metropolitan areas. People from farm states will hardly compromise on farm subsidies, but you can’t get them to support subsidies precious to urban states. States hit hardest by the influx of illegal aliens will certainly have different priorities than urban states with high unemployment or farm states in need of migrant workers.

When we insist that our representatives represent us and only us, we put our local, parochial interests ahead of the “common good.” The “common good” is what has been lost in the current debates in Washington. Maybe it already was gone in the horse-trading mentality that loaded our national budgets with fodder for every state, district, and constituent group. With the zealots on all sides arguing for “do it my way, or you’re out of office,” we have had no open doors for discussion of what is good for all of us.

I am concerned about our national debt, our over-extended budget, our wasteful programs that consume enormous amounts of our resources, our legislative dead-lock, and our “my way or the highway” mentality. I’m also concerned about our environment, our poor, our educational systems, and our unemployed and under-employed. I’m concerned about the power that money can buy, the desire to give as little as possible to the tax-man and to spend as much as possible on frivolous extravagances, and the hungry who don’t know where their next meal will come from. I’m concerned about states that can exist only because the federal government funds essential programs, whose populace would not be willing to pay sufficient taxes to support their own local needs, and whose officials always complain about the insufficient funding from Washington while doing everything possible to keep their constituent taxes low.

The central issue in all of this is selfishness. We are a self-centered people who have lost our sense of community and unity. The Tea Party is a manifestation of this selfishness carried to an extreme. We need again the spirit of those early patriots who, while representing their own particular state’s interests and cherishing the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, also affirmed justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity (that’s us!). These ideals cannot be achieved in self-centered isolation; and they won’t be achieved in Washington until the ideals are recognized, endorsed, and embraced by each and every one of us.