The Elephant of Power & Politics

This fourth elephant on my list of seven that churches tend not to talk about openly is one that is in every living room. For some it’s a small elephant; for others it seems larger than life itself. And there are multiple reasons why churches should not talk about it in either case. That elephant involves power and politics.

For anyone serving in pastoral ministry, however, there are options other than talking and silence on any topic. I would contend from my own experience that every topic can be framed in terms of the Biblical narrative itself. What, for example, does the Bible say? What does Jesus (God himself) say, for He is the Living Word who is above the Bible in authority?

At the risk of getting too long in this message, I will try to make one point using three illustrations. The first illustration is from the time of Jesus living in Palestine during the Roman occupation. The social dynamics of his time and place involved a weak Jewish authority under the thumb of a strong central government, Rome. The economy was, in effect, rigged in favor of the wealthy and often at the expense of the poorer class. There was no real middle class. There was a scapegoat system in place that pitted one poor group against the other. The Romans blamed the Jews who blamed the Samaritans, or the tax collectors, or the prostitutes, or the lepers, the lame, etc. The Jews of Jesus’s day were like a circular firing squad, with great tension and a political market for someone, let’s say a Messiah, who could unite all parties against the enemy of Rome and could “make Israel great again.” That’s the context in which Jesus lived out his short life.

Second illustration. In Germany during the 1930’s, the social dynamic was somewhat similar. Germany was now a debtor nation with a weak central authority operating out of the town of Weimar as a Republic forced to meet the allied demands negotiated in 1919 at Versailles following WW I. The economy was rigged in favor of the wealthy and often at the expense of the poorer class; no real middle class. There was a scapegoat system in place that pitted one poor group against the other. There was great tension among the parties creating a political market for someone, let’s say an Adolph Hitler, who could unite all parties against their most common scapegoats, the Bolsheviks (Russian Communists), the Jews, the politicians, the intellectuals, the lame, etc. The general message of this new “messiah” that made him indeed wildly popular among his countrymen, women, children, was “make Germany great again.”

Interesting to note the similarities between the Palestine of Jesus and the Germany of Hitler with respect to how they used their power. Jesus used his power to lovingly influence others. Hitler used his to fearfully control others. Jesus was, by and large, NOT the Messiah the Jews of 1st century Palestine were looking for. Hitler WAS, by the large, the Messiah the Gentiles of 20th century Germany were looking for. The greatest irony of history is that the German Churches were largely silent about the elephant of power and politics. They largely failed to note the reality that their Savior Jesus, indeed their Messiah, was 180 degrees opposite the new German Fuehrer. Truth told, many regulars in the 1930’s German churches actually worshiped Hitler as their true Messiah out of deference to their national and patriotic identity.

Which brings us to 21st century America. Perhaps you’ve already noticed the pattern here.

Our government and its economy is no longer the world’s lone superpower. The Chinese economy is now so large as to literally create havoc in our own stock markets as China’s own credit and housing bubbles burst. We seem weak by contrast with our past. Our economy seems rigged to favor the elite class at the expense of the poorer classes. Our people are also in circular firing squad mode what with political mudslinging in our media, even as scapegoating of each other’s parties, politicians, races, religions, and nationalities seems most intense. A new political market exists for a messiah who will come and rid us of all such scapegoats with the promise to “make America great again.” Dare we speak the name of our Hitler act-alike(s) here in America’s current political marketplace? Dare we mention anyone whose egomaniacal Savior complex reeks of “false prophecy and pretending to be the Messiah” — Mark 13:22?????

Here is my own thought about the power & political elephant. It is any elephant that opposes Jesus in practice (not name).  Keep in mind that Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven is one of loving influence and NEVER fearful control. If anyone opposes the good news of that Kingdom coming on earth, instead suggesting nationalism or patriotism or any other ism should claim our mortal sacrifice even to the grave in warfare with other nations or isms, then that elephant deserves in my opinion to be talked about for what he or she is: another false messiah seeking fearful control over others. If this is for the sake of our American kindgom, under the banner of “make America great again,” then that is one dangerous elephant to have in our room.

For further reading, may I suggest Milton Mayer’s classic book from 1955 entitled, “They Thought They Were Free.” May not be in print anymore, but does live on electronically to provide exposure to the social dynamics involved in human power and politics. All who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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The Elephant of Sexuality and Adultery

Okay, I’ve called out two elephants and have five to go; i.e., elephants we seldom if ever talk about “in church” sanctuaries or safe places for fear of, well, safety.

My previous elephant of mental illness and addiction (that which we pray about but never preach or teach about in church) led me to the question of whether you think church can and should do more to help heal the wounds of our human minds today, even as Jesus went about healing many people from the neck up during his own day?

Not a bad question for today’s elephant as well. Why not? Because many Christian believers today are hurting, often very deeply, from issues of sexuality and adultery. Many of these are sitting quietly in our pews on Sunday mornings, loathe to speak about their pain for fear of safety. Many, many more are not sitting in our pews on Sunday mornings for the same reason.

When I speak of sexual pain, I have only one particular sexual organ in mind. In fact, it is the mind. The brain: the largest of the body’s sexual organs where size and blood flow is of greatest importance.

Just as diseases of the brain such as mental illness and addiction are elephants we dare not discuss in polite company, so the brain’s normal vs. abnormal functions in relation to sexuality are considered taboo subjects. Though we know the Temporal lobe at the bottom of our brains, along with the Occipital lobe at the back of our brains, produces virtually all of our sexual pleasure and makes our most childish or immature of decisions, such as lust and adultery, God has given humans an equally large portion of brain-power called the Frontal lobe. Its size is roughly equal to that of the Temporal and Occipital lobes. It is post-adolescent in development and tends to mature in our late 20’s and early 30’s as a rule. Yet, it contains our power to make logical choices rather than emotional, based on anticipation of future consequences rather than on present gratification. In other words, it’s the part of our sexual anatomy that helps us avoid and resolve the pains of sexuality and adultery. It’s even large enough to provide us with understanding and forgiveness, as needed. It is the source of our compassion, while the Temporal and Occipital lobes are our source of passion alone.

Here is where I may lose you, if I haven’t already. As a Pastor who believes science is a gift of our creator, be it Geology and Archeology in the study of earth’s creation story, or Neurology and Psychology in the study of sin’s story, I believe our Frontal lobe’s God-given ability is meant to be accepted, opened, and used. Instead, such science is locked away with the elephant and widely ignored.

I’ve been favorably impressed by medical doctors who consider prayer so essential in the healing process as to suggest malpractice if a physician withholds its proven application. To some doctors, withholding of prayer is akin to the withholding of anti-biotic treatment for an infection. There is simply too much empirical evidence out there to validate prayer’s use in healing.

You know what? I’m equally impressed by churches who consider science as so essential in the healing process as to suggest malpractice  —  that’s right, malpractice!  —   if any pastor withholds its proven application. If we really do care about healing people as Christ cared about healing them, then we will include medical science’s empirical evidence of validity instead of withholding it.  This includes science’s proven ability to help with human sexuality issues.

All that said, here’s my own attempt to heal the horrible wounds and afflictions of the LGBT community that has been “lovingly condemned” (today’s #1 oxymoron) in their churches. It comes from the Neuro-scientific study of homosexuality. It is worthy to include, in my own humble opinion, in any worship sermon as illustration re. the issue of homosexuality. It comes to us from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, which found that scans of gay people’s brains most closely resembled — in structure and composition — those of heterosexual people of the opposite sex. Essentially, the 2008 study posited that a lesbian’s brain closely mirrored the structure of a straight man’s brain, while a gay man’s brain was most similar in structure to a straight woman.

Here the issue has nothing at all to do with the brain’s four lobes but rather our two hemispheres, which further explain the brain’s sexual organicity. You see, we are born with our hemispheric orientation.  It’s congenital.   We have no choice in the matter.  Which is why this may indeed help heal the most painful of our brain’s misunderstandings about sexuality.

There is indeed a lot to the sexual elephant in our room today. I could go on and on here in this space. It’s a very large elephant. For me, the bottom line “good news” to leave you with today is this: regardless of our brain hemispheres, the brain lobes will present all of us with a large organ of desire and emotion for our sexual passion. Yet, the brain’s Frontal lobe is equally large when it comes to making logical and moral and consequential decisions powerful enough to prevent lust and adultery, yet also powerful enough to offer understanding and forgiveness. The key is blood flow between our brain lobes to facilitate our neuro-pathways and communication. And the best way to stimulate this heightened blood flow is…………drum roll, please……….to inform and educate people about this elephant in the room.

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The Elephant of Mental Illness and Addiction

Of all the things I’ve lost, I think I miss my mind the most.”  — Author obviously unknown

One of the hardest elephants to talk about involves the most major of major organs in our human bodies.

Over my years of working first as a therapist and more recently as a pastor, I find it intriguing how easily people can present complaints having to do with bodily dysfunctions. Especially as people get older, I find it quite common for folks to compare in even casual conversation their diagnoses, medications, surgeries, doctor’s names. Especially before and after church gatherings!

So long as it does not involve the brain.

Otherwise intelligent people who can name several of the more technical terms for how the organs interact and our anatomy is supposed to function will appear dumbfounded when asked if their brain’s Frontal Lobe is supplying enough answers to the questions being raised by their Amygdala. If you don’t believe me, just try such a question on someone you consider to be of average intelligence, or above average. Ask your parent. Ask your pastor. Ask your doctor. But do be prepared for silence. As in, “which type of cheese do you think Mars is made out of?” silence.

Truth is that some people would more comfortably discuss things we have discovered about the planet of Mars than they would some rather basic things we have discovered about the human brain. Which we visit daily, believe it or not, within our own bodies. And when it comes to pastors in our churches? Some would rather talk about inter-planetary science fiction than they would about the scientific realities of our inner spiritual faith that is rooted in, yes, our human brains. What? Talk about the elephant in our very own living room?

If you’re up for a bit of new experience while reading this, why not click on this link and and watch what happens as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Loleha5EbEo brings you to today’s elephant.

Pretty scary stuff, huh? Well, actually no. In fact, not at all. You just watched a micro-mini lecture by a Vassar College professor. And whether you knew it or not, your brain’s Frontal Lobe was learning something about how mental illness and addiction can happen when the Amydala raises a question the Frontal Lobe has no answer for.

Another way of talking about our brains is that the part of our limbic system we call the Amygdala really functions like a little child within us. Sometimes our little child gets scared. Sometimes our little child asks a lot of questions. Which is why God has given us a Frontal Lobe within our pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part that is our inner adult. The one that can reason out the answers to calm our inner child. You and I are each walking around with a child and an adult inside our heads that, if they are not communicating, will wreck havoc on the rest of our bodies in way of stress-related diseases of the lower organs.

So what’s my point?

Well, for starters, if we’re talking about church sanctuaries in particular, our pews are full of little children whether we know it or not. Everyone in attendance has an Amygdala. Our inner children are full of questions, the biggest of which seem like scary elephants. And every adult in our pews has a Frontal Lobe whose task it is to learn and then to teach and communicate with these inner children on a regular basis. Furthermore, our Frontal Lobes will leave our sanctuary after any given service having learned something that can help hear and then answer our Amygdalas. OR, get ready for this, they will have essentially dropped the Amygdalas off at the door and then returned to pick them up after church, hoping maybe something good rubbed off on them. In which case, our mental illnesses and addictions will continue to happen. In hiding. In silence. In church.

And now the question for comment. Do you think the church can and should do more to help heal the wounds of our human minds today, even as Jesus went about healing many people from the neck up during his own day? Do you think we really can and should talk about this elephant? If so, what are your own ideas for going about this?

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The elephant named death & dying

So I said I was going to be writing about the elephants in our church sanctuaries that pastors rarely if ever lead congregations in talking about. I framed these earlier as being rooted in our deepest human fears, even as human sin itself is rooted in fear: the fear of losing control and thus being separate from God.

I’m often guilty of what some call “psychobabble” and so I’ll try to write from my own personal life experience only. I hope you will trust me and know this is not text book material. Nowhere close!

Today the elephant is our fear of death and dying. In future weeks, I’ll deal with the elephants of mental illness & addiction, sexuality & adultery, power & politics, violence & anger management, pride & prejudice. This will lead up to the 7th and final elephant that I am still afraid to name even in this blogspace.

There are two or three experiences I’ve had of late that inform my work in this post about death and dying. Having just finished three plus years of working in congregational care ministry as an associate pastor in my retirement years, I would venture to say that for every 100 bodies in a mainline church sanctuary today, 50 are dealing with grief about the death or dying of a loved one, if not themselves personally. And that’s only in the suburbs. In America.

Reach into the inner city and the less affluent neighborhoods, or other global hotspots, and the numbers may be even higher than half. Life expectancy is not going up for everyone. Is that a shocking statement? It’s actually going down. Each day we’re closer to death than we were the day before and yet “death expectancy” is the last topic we want to talk about. Even in church, where we should have enough faith and enough grace and enough good news to cover every problem presented.

And when we don’t talk about this elephant in the room, do we live longer? I would suggest quite the opposite.

A close friend of mine named Roger just lost his younger brother, Martin, to an untimely death. By the way, I’m not sure what timely death even is. Or isn’t. So what happened is that Martin, approaching his 60th birthday, had accepted an early retirement from his employer. Free to do a little more playing and less working, he noticed himself having some shortness of breath while at play. Brother Roger had in recent months been stressing the importance of Martin’s using this stage of life to get some affairs taken care of financially and physically, to include a medical exam and, yes, dare I say even to have a legal Will drawn up. But you’ve guessed it, haven’t you? Martin did neither. Never saw a doctor. Never saw a lawyer. Never talked about the elephant. Just died. Suddenly. With multiple emboli in both lungs that had probably been forming in his body over a period of time and that were probably very treatable if he hadn’t been so afraid to start with. And without a legal Will for the sake of his rather complex list of contending heirs.

Sometimes our worst fears become our self-fulfilling prophecies (pardon the “psychobabble”). What we don’t know (how to talk about) really can hurt us. And in some cases even kill us.

Now this isn’t to suggest that by starting a conversation as pastors within a church sanctuary, people will not be afraid to join in. Truth is, most of us are like Simon Peter when Jesus brought up this subject. Maybe you remember Jesus’s line: “get behind me, Satan.” Not everyone will follow any pastor’s lead. But if we can’t talk about death & dying in a church sanctuary half full or more of folks who are, well, dying, then the church itself has an elephant sized problem on its hand as an organized institution.

The local church in which I last served was presented a huge opportunity this year. Involves an entire model of congregational care which begins with helping church people talk about death and dying. The model itself is called, “The Unbroken Circle of Care.” It’s well grounded, even academically, and comes out of Duke University’s cutting edge work on this topic. I commended the model to my own senior pastor, who glanced over the material and decided to “wait” rather than move ahead because, in his words, “the mission of Hospice is not the mission of the Church.”

I write this not to denounce this senior pastor in any respect, but only to ask why it is that even in church sanctuaries, death and dying is only talked about in the context of someone else’s death? Why does it have to be Christ’s death? Why does it have to be a funeral for someone else? Why can’t we talk about our own deaths in church? Like Jesus did? Like when he told his disciples in Mark 8 that if we were to follow him we would have to take up our own crosses. I think he may have been talking about our own elephant in the room. SHHHHHHH! Let’s not go there with Jesus! Let’s change the subject and move on to the next post.

What elephant? There’s no elephant in this room.

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