-written by Mark Bennett
My dad died 9 years ago, just short of his 83rd birthday, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The advanced stages of the disease appeared to come on quickly. Up through his 81st birthday, he lived as independently as he ever had. He did not demonstrate any of the dysfunction one typically associates with the disease. A bout of bronchitis was the turning point. He began to slip away rapidly, going from a highly-functional man to a confused and hallucinating shell of his former self.
Once my dad was diagnosed, we realized that for many years he had exhibited symptoms of Alzheimer’s. One example occurred at his 80th birthday party. Dad appeared to be in his element, happily reminiscing. Late in the party, my three brothers and I stood outside talking to our dad. At one point, he commented, “It’s the darnedest thing. Someone has gone to all of the trouble to build a house that looks exactly like mine. The driveway, the garage, the trees, the flower beds…they are all the same.” When we reminded him that he was at his home, he disagreed. “It looks the same, but it doesn’t feel like it. This isn’t my house.”
I am a voracious consumer of information. I recently read the results and analysis of a survey done by The Barna Group that sought to explore Americans’ sentiments about religion in our daily lives. The findings are absolutely shocking.
The study found that a strong majority of Americans believe that being religiously extreme is a threat to our society. Most of us would likely agree with that assessment, as we have seen its results in the actions of ISIS and other Muslim groups. But we must be honest that we have seen outrageous behavior from so-called Christian groups as they have furiously protested at the funerals of soldiers, committed violent acts in the name of being pro-life, and wrongly advocated for racial segregation out of hatred and ignorance of the Word of God. Unfortunately, American’s concern for extremism is not reserved for that kind of extreme behavior. Consider the following results from the Barna study:
- 42% of Americans believe that people of faith are part of the problem
- Nearly half of non-religious Americans consider Christianity to be extreme
- More than 50% of Americans believe the following is extremist:
- Sharing one’s faith for the purpose of persuading others
- Praying for a stranger
- Teaching that God defines appropriate sexual behavior
- A strong plurality of Americans believe the following is extremist:
- Speaking in tongues
- Leaving gainful employment to become a missionary
- Waiting until marriage to have sex
- More than 1 in 5 Americans believe the following are extremist:
- Reading the Bible silently in public
- Attending church regularly
- Giving regularly to a church
- Abstaining from alcohol or drugs for religious reasons
- Volunteering to help those in need.
I am beginning to understand how my dad felt when he looked around and said, “…this looks like my house, but it doesn’t feel like my house…” This looks like my country, America. But it doesn’t feel like it. How is it that a country whose early European settlers came here in order to freely exercise their Christian religious beliefs now considers the free exercise of those same beliefs to be extreme? And make note that every single item in the above list is revealed in the New Testament as a characteristic of a follower of Jesus Christ. What has happened?
For most of my adult life, Christians have participated widely and exhaustively in the political discourse. From the Moral Majority of the 1980s to evangelical involvement in the Tea Party movement to evangelical litmus tests for presidential candidates and supreme court justice nominees, Christians have loudly voiced their opinions, their beliefs, and their outrage in the public arena. Where has it gotten us? In the words of the ultimate purveyor of pop-psychology, Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”
We must honestly admit that it is not working very well. Our top candidates seem to consistently be repudiated by the voters. Our beliefs are caricatures for pundits and comedians. Our children go off to college and abandon their beliefs in huge numbers. The power that we know was exhibited by the speaking of the Word of God on the Day of Pentecost by Peter and the other apostles seems neutered in our society. What is wrong?
Well maybe, just maybe, it is us.
Jesus taught His followers in John 15 that loving God was exemplified by keeping God’s commandments and that loving Him meant following His example.
Maybe we should do that.
And what example did he set? Jesus, in every encounter with a person seeking God, sought to meet the needs of the moment. He fed the people when they were hungry. He rebuked those seeking to stone the woman caught in adultery, saving her life. Time and again, Jesus demonstrated love first, and then taught about righteousness. Once the accusers left the woman caught in adultery, Jesus told her to go her way and “sin no more.” He first demonstrated love, and then pronounced truth with love.
Rather than carrying signs of protest, rather than spending our time, energy, effort, and money supporting political candidates and positions (all of which are absolutely within our rights as Americans and as Christians), rather than lighting up social media with pointed, witty sound bites, what if we were more like Jesus? What if we reached out into our community? What if we fed and clothed those in need, provided a safe and constructive environment for all children to play, to learn, and to be mentored? What if Southern Hills Christian Church was first in the minds of community members and leaders when a family was coming apart, a teen was in trouble, or a single mom was in need of day care for her children so she could work? What if in fulfilling that role, we had the opportunity to tell someone what Jesus has done for us and that person actually listened because we first loved them? What if the Gospel of Jesus changed the hearts and minds of people in this community like it did on and after the Day of Pentecost over 2,000 years ago? All of a sudden, elections wouldn’t be such a concern, politicians wouldn’t hold such power, and lives would be changed to look more like Jesus.
There is a cure, but it won’t be found in family values or diversity, bigger or smaller government, Republican or Democrat presidents, walls or bridges, or secure e-mail servers. The cure comes when the Church exposes the people to the Gospel of Jesus. All of it, not just the easy parts: the parts where we love the sinner, pray for our enemies, give not just our coat but our shirt, too; the parts where we go the extra mile. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says, “Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” There is a promise there, made by God, who always keeps His promises. Unlike my dad’s Alzheimer’s Disease, America’s spiritual dementia can be healed.
Mark Bennett is one of five Elders at Southern Hills Christian Church. He is married to Laura. They enjoy traveling together and spending time with their new grandson.