One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round

For the last 40 years, Southern Baptists of varying “stripes” have fought about women in ministry. Now that one of the SBC’s shining stars has ordained several, we all get to take another spin—even if it makes us sick.

Remember the good ‘ole days of the metal merry-go-round in the community park?

You know, back when an arm cast caused by a piece of playground equipment was a badge of honor?

That merry-go-round came in a variety of sizes and degrees of difficulty. The old Cleveland Park in Greenville, SC had small ones that could spin at something just short of the speed of sound. If you were lucky the worst that happened is losing your grip and flying across the dusty Carolina clay.

Then we had the bigger ones—not as fast but equally dangerous. Especially when we tried jumping on and off of them while they were spinning. If you did not crack some ribs on the “safety” bar, likely you threw up after the ride stopped.

I am getting a bit of that sick feeling tonight as I write yet another post about women in ministry, particularly pastoral ministry. Baptists who have traditional or current ties to the Convention are spinning back to this issue because of Rick Warren and Saddleback Church. Long a shining star in the SBC crown, Saddleback ordained three women as ministers on Saturday night.

And Southern Baptist leaders let their cheese slide right off their cracker.

Pastors and Convention presidents and seminary professors were among those who lost their marbles, offering plenty of bad takes and worse historic quotes from former SBC leaders.

This is the most important issue for Christians in the modern world?

Back in the day, we made the choice to ride the merry-go-round until we could not hold our PB&J. I am getting on the ride again here out of necessity. I cannot just stay silent while others drag my fellow ministers–women ministers—through the mud.

I will give the SBC leadership credit for sticking to their convictions. I just wish those convictions leaned towards a more critical issue than keeping half of God’s creation away from a microphone at church.

I do not understand this and never have. I will likely never understand this perspective. God can exercise the power of the Holy Spirit to call and choose anyone. And it has nothing to with whether or not you can effectively use a urinal.  

Let us spin this in the other direction. Rather than drag SBC leaders for their view (easy to do), we can take a look at some reasons to believe that God clearly calls women to ministry, including pastoral ministry, preaching, and ministry of Word and Sacrament.

1. God is not restricted by human interpretations of the Bible. It is not that God would do something outside of the biblical witness. However, God is author and finisher of our faith and is not “boxed in” by Scripture, much less by our particular interpretation of Scripture.

Traditions are important. But they must remain consistent with an ever-growing understanding of God’s Word and work in the world. It is high time that we grow up in our understanding of God’s call on the lives of women.

2. History should inform us, but not define us. It is fairly easy to argue that, historically, many faith leaders, authors, and those considered spiritual giants in Baptist life opposed the idea of women in ministry. This was partially based on Scripture; however, it was also based on social, cultural, historical, and even scientific factors (based on the science of the day).

Please recognize that these men, such as John Broadus and B.H. Carroll, taught that women should not even be seated as messengers at Convention meetings. They taught segregation as God’s law, even for the church. They believed that slavery was supported by the Bible. They likely believed that women should always have head coverings in church.

We have changed our views on these things (I HOPE) based on better understanding and interpretation of the Bible and common sense leading of the Holy Spirit. And we should do the same regarding women in ministry. Why are some clinging to history rather than letting it guide us to the full personhood of women, all the way to the pulpit?

3. Our understanding of God can—and should—change.

Many may argue that God did not call for the ordination of women in the New Testament church, so why would he suddenly call for that now?

What if believers simply did not—or could not—recognize that call in the NT era? What if they missed it?

Does that make it okay for us to miss the boat as well?

Greater understanding and expansion of the Spirit’s work should always be our goal. We need to look towards who God invites rather than who God excludes.

4. The Bible—particularly the New Testament—pushes towards greater equity for all.

Several New Testament passages, if taken as singular verses/sections, seem to point to the subordination of women in the church. That is undeniable.

As both a pastor and professor, I argue that the New Testament overall pushes towards greater equity for all. For now, we will focus on women. This will be brief so that you will not have to read for hours on end.

Jesus interacts with women in ways that went beyond the comprehension of the people of his day, disciples included (Matthew 15; Mark 5; Luke 7; Luke 10; John 4; and John 8). Women were the first to preach the good news on Easter Sunday, faithful and willing disciples.

In spite of how he is interpreted, Paul interacts with women in similar ways (Acts 16, Romans 16). Women are identified as his partners and equals in ministry (Acts 18, Philippians 4). Despite his lengthy instructions, he does acknowledge women speaking in the assemblies at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11).

His writings include the most simple and direct word on this matter: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Did Paul get to full equity? Surely not during his time. But that should not prevent us from getting there in the present time.

If you choose to focus on the verses that silence women as authoritative, then you should not ignore the verses that acknowledge and empower their vital role in God’s story of love and redemption for all of creation.

5. Women have always been among the great “cloud of witnesses” in ministry.

Allow me to name some examples from scripture, from history, and from the modern context. These are a few among the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12) who show us God’s work through women as spiritual mentors, pastors, leaders, and preachers.

Deborah. Ruth. Naomi. Esther. Mary the Mom. Elizabeth. Anna the Prophetess. Mary Magdalene. The woman at the well. The woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears. The women at the empty tomb. Lydia. Priscilla. Phoebe. Euodia. Syntyche. Timothy’s mother and grandmother. All led, spoke, taught, worked, and faithfully followed the power of the Spirit in some capacity.

Catherine Scott. Sojourner Truth. Ida B. Wells. Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Fannie Lou Hamer. Aimee Semple McPherson. I do not know if these women were saints or great pastors, because I know very little about them (what does that say about me/us?). But they were preachers and pastors long before 2021.

What about today? I know of a few names. Kelli Kirksey. Stacey Simpson Duke. Anita Roper. Jennifer McClung Rygg. Helen Lee Turner. Debbie Roper. Ashley Twitchell. Ka’thy Gore Chappell. Alexandra Mauney. Kheresa Harmon. Anita Killebrew Herbert. Paula Qualls. Anna Sieges-Beal. All called or formally ordained to ministry in some form or fashion. Many great speakers, preachers, or teachers. (And I apologize for anyone I missed—running out of room!).

This is not to mention the scores of women who personally led me in my life and towards a call to ministry. I am not even worthy to wash the feet of these giants of faith.

And at last check, none led to the downfall of a single person or congregation.

If these women caused God tremendous angst by violating some prohibition against their work, it is hard to see. Their work gives us greater faith and hope that God always has and still does move—with or without male permission.

And finally…

6. It is the Baptist way.

Do Baptist churches ordain many women or call them as pastors? Certainly not. However, true Baptist practice should defend the soul freedom of any church to do so, no matter what is written in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

I grew up knowing and believing in three central principles on which Baptist church practice should stand.

The priesthood of ALL believers – The Holy Spirit can work in and through anyone. We do not need a pastor or denominational guru to be present to judge whether or not the Spirit is moving in or through someone. We can also read and interpret Scripture of our own accord and through our local community of believers.

Soul Competency – God works in and through people, and people are responsible to God for following the movement of God in their lives. It is not up to a denominational body or even a pastor to judge that movement.

Autonomy of the Local Church – The Southern Baptist Convention does not ordain people. ORDINATION is a LOCAL church matter. Each congregation, possibly in work with other churches or a local association, determine the fitness of someone to be ordained to ministry.

Saddleback did exactly that, as has every other church to ordain or call a woman to ministry. Their action is not authoritative or declarative for any other Baptist church or organization.

Take all of this as you will. Through years of study, research, reason, and prayer, this is why I believe that God calls women to all form of ministry, wherever the Holy Spirit leads. It is the very core of Baptist belief that confirms for me the spiritual right of a church to ordain and call those that they deem worthy.

This is 2021. We cannot assume that God suddenly changed his mind about ordaining women because of the year. But perhaps God expected us to grow past the 1st century C.E. in our understanding of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of those God created.

The more churches recognize this, the better we will become at building the Kingdom of God.

Grace Is the Word

Author’s Note: I wrote this post as a message to those at my University who continue to struggle valiantly through the hardships of COVID-19. Still, it holds a certain value for all of us as we navigate towards what will hopefully be the end of Pandemic Life.

Pandemic shutdowns began just over a year ago. On March 12, 2020, my non-profit organization (where I worked prior to Limestone) declared “work from home” due to COVID-19 concerns. I did not return to the office for five months, and I only saw my team in person one more time.

As we crest this hill, it feels like the most brutal year-long decade that we ever encountered. Seriously, does March of 2020 not seem like an eternity ago?

Psychological evidence suggest that our hearts and minds are feeling that. Numerous articles and studies indicate that we are tired, frustrated, angry, and even lashing out at one another because of this. The impact on college students is significant according to multiple studies.

If college is anything, it is an exercise in social interaction. Taking away a primary component of college life makes online classes and safety measures that much more challenging to endure.

What about the impact on faculty and staff? We strive to smile behind the mask, but we also fight back frustration with this lack of normalcy.

When we factor in the overall damage to ALL people in so many aspects of life, we have potentially volatile situations on college campuses. Our beloved University is no exception.

I started at my University on October 19, 2021. I have students that I still cannot recognize because I have never seen them without a mask. This is not anything close to “normal” campus life of sitting around the coffee shop or the student center or chatting on the Quad. This lack of activity sometimes looks more like summer break on campus than the last half of spring semester.

Let us also remember that we are now on the downhill side of the academic year. If you are like me, you are trying to wrap up the “To Do” list you created sometime in January. This University is a busy place and everyone—including students—is working hard and a little on the edge.

Yet, here we are, persevering and pressing on towards the goal. We are playing sports, having a Homecoming celebration and planning graduation. It is all the more stressful to do through a mask, but we are doing it.

This is how we get to know our students these days!

No doubt the Complaint Box in every department is far more slammed than it is in normal circumstance. The pent-up frustrations of the last year are beginning to take their toll, and we are all prone to slide into a bad place in heart and mind. More than that, we are likely to take it out on someone else.

What do we need to push forward to the finish? Grace is the word.

The technical definition of the term “grace” takes on multiple components, many of which we can use right now.

a. unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.

b: a virtue coming from God.

c: a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance.

Yes, a bit of Divine Assistance is something that can help us all right now. But the definitions also take us to a place that requires our action with the support of that Divine Assistance.

d: disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.

e: a temporary exemptionREPRIEVE

How do we see our way through the remainder of this Pandemic Semester, which may (or may not) be our last such semester? We remember the virtue that is offered to us through power that is beyond ourselves. And we increase our efforts at kindness, courtesy, clemency, and even reprieve.

It is easy in a crisis such as this to display a lack of grace to others—and to ourselves. In our frustration, we could retreat into a state of bitter complaint against everyone and everything that gets on our nerves. It is a trap for any of us experiencing long-term and unexpected stress.

What if we instead decide to live out the word “Grace” in every aspect, whenever we have the opportunity? What if we take on an attitude of forgiveness and understanding that get us to the finish line of this semester—and perhaps back to something that looks like normal next spring?

As we commemorated this lockdown year March 12, 2021, we also reached the 1 million shot threshold on vaccine delivery. If we can hang on a little longer, keep wearing our masks, continue with safe practices, and contain our frustration, we may be nearing the finish line.

Now is the time to keep running the race towards that line, with an extra high dose of grace—both for others and for yourself! These are essentials in tense and stressful times.

Let us also remember that many have sacrificed far more during the past year than just social gatherings and sporting events, including people on this campus. We honor and respect those who have suffered loss this year by staying safe and pressing on towards the goal.

This is the very meaning of the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” By learning to offer extra grace to all in the most difficult times, we can fully celebrate that grace together in the best of times.

If we can do that just a little while longer, then perhaps we can get to something that looks a lot more like “normal.”

Finding the Words: A Message about January 6

Watching the assault on the Capitol Building January 6 filled me with a flood of thoughts and emotions. I tried to write these down multiple times and in multiple ways. But the only thing that finally made sense was to write what my audience needed to hear.

I openly wept on January 6.

Watching what happened in Washington, D.C. on that day brought me to actual tears. I found myself not surprised, but bitterly disappointed that this was happening. It made me sad and filled me with anger and rage at the same time.

What caused me the greatest pain were the shouts of proclamation and the flags that some people waved throughout the crowd.

“Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President.”

“Jesus Saves.”

“Jesus 2020.”

“Make America Godly Again.”

Cross raisings in Washington and in state capital protests.

I saw nothing of Jesus Christ in these events. If His presence was honored, it was in some non-visible way. Some might try to argue that these shouts and signs were good things, or that these are not connected to the political rancor. This is historically and presently disingenuous. The clear equation is that support of the President and the capitol insurrection are equal to support of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

In all of the things that we witnessed on January 6, I did not see one thing that made me think about Jesus, feel closer to Jesus, or insinuate that the people involved really understood the life and purpose of Jesus

As I often do, I sat down to write about this as a way of processing the events and subsequent emotions. I started multiple drafts of blogs and letters that all ended up in the virtual “file 13.” If we were in the old days of typewriters, the tossed papers would overwhelm my office floor.

In scrambling for some manner of making sense of this, I turned back to the people that matter most: my primary audience. I began to ponder what I would say to my students at Limestone University, to our faculty, and to our staff. Rather than considering what I wanted to say or what I felt at that moment, I tried to think of what they might need to hear to give them hope in the midst of this chaos.

Here is the result, a letter that went to the University community last Tuesday.

To our students and Limestone family,

By now, you have probably seen, heard, or read about some horrific events that took place last Wednesday, January 6, at the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. A significant group of people pushed into the building and disrupted the work of the United States government.

Among this group, some people carried crosses, signs, or banners of crosses, or shouted the name of God and Jesus at different times. Several flags flew with “Jesus” or “Jesus Saves” on them; and even one said “Trump = Jesus” on it. The use of Jesus’ name in such circumstances certainly caught my attention.

I suspect that you, as college students, have awareness and strong opinions about what happened last week. You may have strong political opinions. Christian leadership does not allow us to bury our heads in the sand when we witness troubling events. Last week’s riot deserves our attention and requires a Christ-centered response.

This writing is my attempt to offer such a response.

At this time, let us be challenged not to focus our energy on diverse political stances. Instead, let us focus our energy on spiritual development and growing our Christian leadership in a way that guides us in all that we say and do.

And that focus is where we turn now, in the middle of this crisis. Our tasks is not to hold up banners or flags or t-shirts that say Jesus. It is our task to be the hands and feet of Jesus—no matter who occupies the Capitol or the White House.

I believe that Christians are responsible to be involved in public issues, and it is our civic duty to participate in government on acceptable levels. However, we are never called to put our full faith in politics, in elections, in candidates, or in our ability to gain power. Beyond that, the Scriptures warn us to never, ever put our full faith in people or empires: kings, presidents, political parties, power leaders, the wealthy and famous, or even pastors. Our faith is to one whose name is above all names.

With that in mind, our response to last week’s events is incredibly simple and direct in an incredibly complicated situation.

We lead by seeking Christ alone. We educate ourselves by learning and following the ways of Jesus Christ—no matter who is in the White House. What we saw from people calling out the name of Jesus, while breaking windows to get inside the Capitol, does not reflect the teaching or path that Jesus Christ offered to his disciples—or to us.

Limestone holds to its heritage as a Christian University. We are called to carry on that heritage, as those who are learning and developing in Christian leadership. How do we carry this forward through political turmoil and the use of the Lord’s name in extremely strange ways?

Again, the answer is simpler than it seems. We do not put our trust in empire, country, or the leaders of such. We put our faith in Christ alone. We seek Christ above all things, and instead of all things if necessary. We look to the Scriptures to find what Christ says, does, and requires of us—and we follow that, with all of our heart.

This means that we take action to lift up others and meet their needs. We listen to those that we do not (or cannot) understand, and we try to see their struggle. We work to live together as a community and live as those who love Jesus. We strive to learn more about the life of Christ and figure out ways to live out that life.

No matter who is in charge in Washington, DC, we are STILL called to seek out Christ and follow Christ. This means that we love the Lord, love our neighbors as ourselves—and live out these commands in how we act towards others.

In spite of the turmoil of recent days, I look forward to getting back to school and doing what we are called to do. I look forward to searching for Jesus and figuring out how to live the way that Christ did—in all things, and no matter how hard it might be.

Let us take heart in the words of one of my favorite songs:

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

If any of you has a need to talk or process any of this, please do not hesitate to reach out by text, email, or simply drop by the Chapel. I am glad to continue to “work out our salvation” together (Philippians 2:12) and to share any concerns and hopes that you may have.

As we fill the space between the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and the inauguration of the 46th President, may we remember that the most admirable of people are still people. Those that are truly great will not point towards themselves, but towards ideals of One who is greater.

This is the time to fully commit ourselves to stop listening to who others say Jesus is, and find the reality of the Living Christ. Only in that can we also make the choice that Dr. King did: to pursue the way of love, as the power that can bring meaningful, lasting change to the heart of humanity.

If you have thoughts or questions that you would pose to me, I encourage you to reach out as well. tlegrand71@gmail.com or tslegrand@limestone.edu.

At Christmas: Finding a Faith that Is FOR Something

It is easy to adopt a religion of opposition, and Southern Baptists made it an art form for decades. Jesus comes to ask a different question. Who and what are we FOR?

Do you remember the good old days of Christian faith, when all you needed to be a Christian was to tell people what you were against?

I once pastored a church that was founded in 1790. Monthly church records show members regularly disciplined for dancing, card-playing, and—my personal favorite—spitting tobacco juice on the church floor!

If you grew up in a Southern Baptist church or youth group, you know this drill all too well.Stay away from rock and roll (KISS was the forbidden fruit in my house), watch out for deceptive dark forces creeping into your heart (Dungeons & Dragons, see “rock and roll” above), do not let the forces of the Devil prevail (child-sacrificing Satan worshippers, out and about on Halloween).

And of course, alcohol/sex/drugs remained standard taboos.

Christianity in the last 50 years has made an art form of being “anti.” We are masterful at defining ourselves by what we are against. And Southern Baptists certainly make significant contributions to this art. Their latest target: Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality.

Let me begin by stating that I have an extremely limited understanding of CRT, Critical Theory, and Intersectionality. I am still reading, still listening, still learning on these topics.

Yes, plenty of people are willing to tell me what these are and why they are “wrong” or “contrary to scripture” or, well, whatever. I prefer to do my own research before deciding on that.

Here is the problem: a religion of opposition always requires a new enemy to keep stirring up the base (sound familiar?). The creation of a new “boogeyman”—quite often formed out of straw—becomes the standard. SBC fundamentalists took aim at those who refused to affirm the “inerrant, infallible” Word of God, as they defined it, including ordination of women.

The Convention went on to create a long list of demons over the years: abortion, political liberalism, freemasonry, Disney Corporation, Muslims, homosexuality, socialism.

Now, CRT and Intersectionality get the “privilege” of being the boogeyman to rally the base. Not surprisingly, this culture of opposition keeps alive the Ghost of Racism Past, Present, and Future.

“We stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message,” the statement reads.

Translation: “We apologized for this in the 1990s. What more do you want?”

What many black pastors and congregations are rightly pointing out is that a proactive faith is required in order to address deeply rooted issues of sin and reconciliation. Finding the right thing to oppose to appease the “base” is not going to move us closer to a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. 

Empty apologies without constructive reflection as Christian community imitate the shallow faith of a religion of opposition. Defining faith by which “boogeyman” you can knock down is simple and easy; and much more of a crowd-pleaser than the gut-wrenching, costly grace to which we are called. 

In opting for a religion of opposition, we lose the challenging ability to reflect, repent, and reform our actions. And we are left with half-hearted apologies and empty words.

It is symptomatic of a Convention that spent the last 40 years defining itself by what it is against¸ much more than who or what it is for. African American congregations are confronting in the SBC what many of us discovered long ago. When you are always looking for something to oppose, for the force that is causing all the evil in the world, then you do not have a lot of time to look at yourself in the mirror.

The heart of the issue is that Jesus was constantly in trouble for not being “anti” enough for those around Him. He refused to hate the people or things that everyone wanted Him to hate. He chose to be FOR something, to challenge us to a deep cleansing of heart and mind, rather than justifying our shallow finger-pointing and posturing.

Southern Baptists are facing yet another tragic split on the issue of race, a tradition that dates back to 1845. Yet it does not have to be this way. This Advent season, as we prepare for the arrival of the Living Christ, we can choose a faith the is FOR something—a faith of affirmation.

We can be for a Jesus comes as an advocate for people and not as an opponent of those that we do not like or who make us uncomfortable.

We can affirm that the arrival of a savior who shows us the truth about OURSELVES rather than created enemies; and then gives us overwhelming grace to deal with that truth.

We can be for those who are poor—in spirit, in status, in circumstances–.

We can affirm a Jesus that comes to life upthose who have been oppressed.

We can affirm that Jesus did not come to join those who exercised power and control over others. He came to stand with those whose spirits were bewildered by the exercise of power and control.

We can affirm that Jesus came to HEAR the voices of those who were traditionally ignored.

We can affirm that Jesus loved human beings more than he did religious regulations and platitudes. 

We can affirm that Jesus spent his time lifting the hearts of those crushed by the letter of the law, rather than allowing the lawmakers to ignore the needs of people.

We can affirm that Jesus came to walk with us, for as long and as far as necessary, to find a path to hope and reconciliation. There is no point where Christ says, “That’s as far as I am willing to go for you.” Nor should there be such a point for us.

The problems in the SBC are emblematic of an issue that prevails within the nooks and crannies of American Christianity. We cannot justly claim to love the people that Jesus loves if we cannot listen to what they are telling us that they need. We cannot claim moral high ground by simply opposing the “right” things.

The Advent of the Christ child calls on us to move beyond a religion of opposition to a Jesus of affirmation. We love the language of peace, unity, and joy that Christmastime brings to us, and we need that language in a powerful way as we cling to the hope that 2020 is mercifully going to come to an end (and not a moment too soon).

But the lessons of 2020 will linger, and language is not enough to address them. Christmas has always beckoned us to recognize the needs of others and stand with the vulnerable. It always calls us to be for Christ-centered action on their behalf.

Christmas is not merely about our comfort. It is about the challenge to see the world in a completely new and different light. The Living Christ opens our hearts to hear how we need to learn from and love one another. It is time that we listen to our African American community rather than covering our ears when we do not want to hear.

Let us worship the child in a manger this Christmas with a faith that affirms one another and listens to the cry of our sisters and brothers—no matter how much disruption or discomfort it may cause.

A “Letter” to Mr. Joseph Epstein

The uproar in recent days over Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “Dr.” in front of her name is surprisingly distracting from much more important issues in the world. The following “open letter” (a designation I typically despise) asks a crucial question: Who cares?

Dear Mr. Joseph Epstein,

As an ordained minister, I was regularly listed in the bulletin or on the church sign as “Rev. Tom LeGrand.” I never insisted on being called this and I certainly did not correct those who did not use the formal title. In fact, the youth group got a kick out of calling me “PREACHER Tom,” a not uncommon title in a country church. 

But everyone in the church and the town knew that I was an ordained minister. They knew I was called to the purpose of ministry

My denomination could pretty much ordain a ham sandwich if some church chose to do it (although my particular church required a Master of Divinity). The process is not an excruciating academic endeavor, as it is for other denominations.

Yet, it mattered to the church to add the title “Reverend” to my name. It designates that the congregation believes I am called to a special and particular purpose, as a minister of the Gospel.

As I read with interest your op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal concerning the soon-to-be First Lady, I wondered how I would have felt if the church said my ordination did not matter. How would I take it if they were offended to recognize that calling to pastor their church, preside over the Ordinances, or baptize their children?

I do not really know how demanding Jill Biden is that others put “Dr.” in front of her name. But the essential question really is: who cares? More to the point, why do you care?

bert

Why does it bother you if people refer to her as “Doctor” or if she asks them to do so?

Could this be more of a “you” problem than a “her” problem?

Listen, we all get it, okay? WSJ is a publication that is in the business to make a profit. They look for articles that are great click-bait, and you did your job well—so well that your degrading, demeaning, and insulting approach demands a response.

You referred to the future First Lady as “Kiddo.” I am only thankful that you restrained from something more demeaning or sexist. Not only did you insult Jill Biden, but you diminished everyone who invested the time, talent, and treasure to accomplish what you did not—an earned doctorate.

We are all sorry that certain institutions, selected fields, and dissertation titles are considered “unpromising” by you. Then again, you are not really qualified to make that judgment, are you? Because you do not have the credentials to do so.

Maybe that is the true problem here. Maybe it bothers you that a woman has rightfully earned a title that you do not have. Or maybe it bothers you that, after all those years as a lecturer at a world-renowned university, you still did not get to call yourself what everyone else did.

Maybe you are not at all so threatened or insecure, but your op-ed certainly made it sound as if you are.

Why would you feel that way? You spent 30 years lecturing at Northwestern University, in spite of a surprising lack of academic credentials. You were apparently so gifted that the institution did not insist on such credentials. To assail someone who DID get those credentials is, quite frankly, beneath you.

You chose, for whatever reason, not to pursue a higher degree. It was your call not to make the tremendous sacrifice that many others do to earn a doctorate (and it is indeed a sacrifice). Do not waste your time—or ours—by slinging mud at someone because they invested in a path that you did not.

Jill Biden has stated that she knew she was “home” when she went to work at the community college level. She chose to pursue an EdD because it was a calling, a belief that this was her designated place to make a difference. She then pursued a degree at a public institution of higher education that likely fit her calling more than Harvard or Princeton would. 

She deserves to be praised for following this passion. She certainly does not deserve to be demeaned for it, especially from someone who clearly has not read her dissertation or witnessed her work.

I agree that the standards for an earned doctorate are not what they once were. Universities have figured out that they can make money from people pursuing these degrees and are creating more pathways to fill their coffers. These are not the same as the PhD, but they are still personally demanding and academically rigorous.

I also agree that it seems a bit silly and arrogant for anyone to insist on being called “Doctor,” particularly in non-professional settings. However, it is no less silly or arrogant than your approach to the First Lady-to-Be, or others who have similar degrees.

In case you have not figured it out, I too have an EdD that would likely not meet your self-proclaimed “standards.” Then again, it really does not matter. My concern is proving myself to students, colleagues, editors, and those who task me with work inside of my field. Beyond that, I really do not understand why my title or how I choose to use it matters to anyone.

For me personally, I do not demand to be called “Doctor” or correct those who fail to use the honorific. I do ask my students to call me Dr. LeGrand because it matters, both in the classroom and in my profession. You of all people know that it matters.

I suspect it matters in Dr. Biden’s profession as well. I just cannot fathom why it matters so much to you or anyone else. If you are so outraged that she utilizes this honorific, maybe you need to take a deeper look at what this says about you.

Sincerely,

Tom LeGrand

The Dolly We Never Knew

It is great that Dolly Parton is being appreciated for all of her charitable contributions. But the best thing about her is that she never needed that appreciation in the first place.

Am I a fan of Dolly Parton the musician? No, I most unequivocally am not. (Yeah, I said it).

Never could get behind “Islands in the Stream” or “Here You Come Again.” But let’s give credit where credit is absolutely due: “Jolene” and “9 to 5” are as close to classic as Dolly is likely to get.

Dolly
This is the Dolly Parton I remember growing up.

Truth be told, I do not even like Dollywood. (Yeah, I said that too).

Dolly is suddenly everyone’s darling. People are swooning over her $1 million contribution to COVID-19 vaccine research, and her unapologetic declaration that “And of course black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”

Naturally that last line did not get rave reviews from everyone. But it is part of a confluence of events that have garnered the nation’s attention for her ongoing contributions. You can read a partial list here because I frankly do not have time to write a 10-page blog.

She simply makes the world a better place.

Dolly periodically receives attention for her work, particularly in children’s literacy. But she has never received the widespread accolades and appreciation that seem to be coming her way right now. The vaccine contribution has opened a rare door into the broad actions of a celebrity who seems to act on an overwhelming love for community, country, and humanity.

Yet, maybe we are missing the most appealing aspect of her contributions as we pour praise on her.

She never wanted our praise in the first place.

The breadth and depth of her initiatives have fully come to new light in the last few weeks. That is not to say Dolly did not promote her work, raise money for causes, or accept recognition along the way. From where the rest of us sit with our limited view, far from her fame, it does seem her primary motive was the good of humanity rather than personal recognition.

There are two unique and amazing components of her work. Let us begin with her recognition of a legitimate need and responding to it rather than acting on a personal whim. She did not decide what she wanted to do for her charitable work. She let the identified need guide her contributions to education and literacy in her home community–and around the world.

Then there is her lack of desire to seek the spotlight for her work. Again, I do not personally know Dolly Parton, so I can only draw conclusions from a distance. She comes across as having a humility that drives her desire to empower people out of genuine concern and love.

This is the Dolly that many of us never knew. She is a millionaire who likely could be a billionaire—except she chose to give it away. Her initiatives demonstrate a thoughtful, responsive heart that remembers a father who never learned to read and write. And a desire to help the children in her hometown avoid those same circumstances.

It is not that she is afraid to speak out, as her BLM comment shows. She raises her voice when and where it is most needed, which makes her voice that much more powerful.

This, in fact, is truly the heart of the matter. Evangelical heroes climb to the mountain top or fall off of it every week—all with the cameras rolling and the press corps typing.

What could prove more refreshing than a proclaimed born-again Christian celebrity using fame and fortune for good, without seeking to rack up news headlines, retweets, or viral TikToks?

Let us make it even more appealing by recognizing Dolly’s biblical approach towards empowering others. It should never be about our publicity photos on social media or fundraising opportunities while we pat ourselves on the back in our “holiness.” It is about offering—and perhaps sacrificing—for the good of others without expecting anything in return.

We live in the era of market-driven Christianity, partnered with high priced, highly publicized “missional” activities. We somehow miss that the Scriptures guide us to do exactly the opposite in our interactions with other people, particularly those who are deeply in need.

Jesus says in Matthew 6, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” We are not supposed to use our service as a great photo op or Facebook post to illustrate how bold and great and brave we are. Serving others in silence ensures that we are being the hands and feet of Christ rather than serving our own self-righteous egos.

Occasionally, people may take this in the opposite direction. One could easily use it as an excuse for judging others. “See, I do ALL of my good deeds in secret, while all those people are looking for recognition!” Is this not just a different expression of the same problem?

Here’s the thing: Doing for others is always about the “other.” Anything that brings it back to you, in any way, drifts towards spiritual bankruptcy.

Matthew 25:31-46 is eternally one of my favorite passages in the Bible. To sum it up, the “sheep” are those who give to the needy and help the poor or imprisoned, without seeking any personal reward.

Beyond that, they do not even realize they are doing something special! They are just going where the Spirit is leading, doing what is needed without the least expectation of any return on their investment. In the passage, they are genuinely shocked that God even recognizes the value of their deeds.

No one “owes” us for the kindness we show towards others, or the gifts that we offer to others, even those who are recipients of those gifts. If we are looking for gratitude or thank you notes or a simple pat on the back, then we are still looking for more than we deserve.

Rather than giving with caution and expectation, may we give offerings in the truest sense of the word. Let us do for others and be present for others without any pretense towards getting something for ourselves.

In other words, maybe we could all be more like Dolly Parton, seeing the need and responding to it—even then the cameras are turned off.

I may not be a huge fan of her music. But I am absolutely a fan of Dolly’s humanity, where she shows a biblical and Christ-like example for how we are called to empower the lives of others.

May we go forth and do likewise.

Crushing Defeats, Great Challenges, and New Beginnings (Again): A 2020 Story

Yes, everyone is tired of the hot mess that is 2020. Our family feels like we have been living here since 2018, and the rest of you are just catching up to us!

If you think 2020 is awful, think about this. What if you started it two years earlier than everyone else?

Our family entered this nightmarish scene more than two years ago. At the end of 2018, we said, “Well, 2019 HAS to be better.” Apparently, it doesn’t.

At the end of 2019, we said, “Well, we made it through that. 2020 HAS to be better.” Apparently, it doesn’t. Honestly, what could be more 2020 than thinking this year would make things better?

Lost loved ones. Lost jobs. Lost friendships. Lost relationships with family. Lost churches and church family. Not to mention lockdowns, concussions, unemployment, and the general challenge of trying to figure out where the Spirit is leading next.

And oh yeah, COVID-19.

We have seen all of these play out in our family in a variety of ways over the last 2+ years, and we are more than ready for an end. As my wife Tracy says, “I’m ready for some precedented and unchallenging times!” (We’re semi-optimistic, but not holding our breath).

Everything since January 2018 is kind of like that roller coaster ride at the amusement part—the big, old, wooden style. You look at it and think, “That looks like fun. And of course it has to be safe, right?”

About two-thirds of the way down the first hill, with your rear end flying off the seat, you start thinking, “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” In turn #3, as the old metal security bar with duct tape on it (always a reassuring sign) smashes into your hip while the G-force hurls the unknown person beside you flush up against your body, you start looking for the end of this fresh hell that you chose to begin.

But you cannot find the ending. Surely these small hills in front of you won’t be so bad, right? Except they maul your already-queasy intestines and shake you around like you’re in the spin cycle of an old washing machine.

Finally, the end does come. And an hour or so later, after your innards start to reconnect and settle back into place, you suddenly think, “Hey, can we ride that again?”

Not this time. I am no longer choosing to get back on the roller coaster. I will gladly stay on the nice, slow train that rides around the gut-wrenching rides.

Back to School

Yesterday, I started a new job as Director of the Christian Education & Leadership Program (CELP) at Limestone University. I will also serve as University Chaplain. Working with students. Teaching classes. Preaching in local churches (as the opportunities arise). I am ecstatic to be back on campus again.

The Curtis Building is a piece of Limestone history.

It was always a dream to teach and work in a University setting. I had that opportunity once but had to step away to answer a different calling. That move was not even a roller coaster. It was the old school Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the county fair, run by a guy who enjoyed watching everyone get sick.

(And yes, I have literally experienced that one as well).

Being back on a campus leads me to be exceptionally grateful for a second chance to answer a call that I have felt since I was in college myself. It is hard to imagine that I will get a third chance, so we want to make this one count–for a very long time.

Can we make that happen? Who knows? Life itself is a crazy ride. It is impossible to see the next hill, curve, or spin that is coming, much less know for sure the direction of the Spirit of God. Quite often, we discern God’s direction in the middle of the ride—which is part of why it is exciting to get on in the first place.

For now, we are simply grateful. It sounds cliched and trite, but it is real nonetheless.

Living without a Livelihood

I took my first job at 13 years old and never faced unemployment. I have now been unemployed twice within the last 18 months. It is disheartening and debilitating, particularly considering the way it happened and the work that I was doing.

Even now, I remain amazed and disappointed at the tendency of ethically sourced organizations with elaborate mission statements about acting graciously to act so unethically and ungraciously towards their employees.

Through it all, I have yet to go without a paycheck or unemployment. And I have landed in jobs better suited for my skills and calling to serve as a minister of the Gospel. I have no idea why this is, which is part of the reason that I am humbled by it. It is certainly unearned and undeserved.

I also hope, against all odds, that our legislators and current President will come to their senses and discover some level of empathy towards those who are not so fortunate. Too many people are hurting to spend time quibbling and nominating while we ignore the downward spiral of people left out in the cold by this pandemic. And it is going to get much colder much sooner without definitive action.

What Now?

As for our family, we seek to show our humility and gratitude by reaching out to those still struggling. I have also learned to appreciate the opportunity at hand while I have it. I am thrilled to be working with students once again, in a faith-based setting. It is my ongoing belief that we do for others and serve others because of the Gospel, not despite it.

No matter where the ride takes us next, I fully intend to appreciate the one we are on right now, whether it is thrilling or boring or bumpy or even a little bit nauseating.

But we are hoping for just a little bit of calm amid the storm of 2020, at least from a vocational standpoint.

I must also express my love and appreciation to so many of you who have lifted my heart and my spirit in the last two years. No one stands out above my wife Tracy, whose patience and faithfulness are difficult to fathom–a blessing that defies description.

This further extends to all of you—former church members, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, mentors, and pastors. Christ has worked through you to lift me up from some of the lowest points of my life.

Lessons Learned

-Appreciate the present rather than looking so hard to an unknown future.

-Make Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” your theme song. “I get knocked down, but I get up again, and they’re never gonna keep me down…”

-A lot of other people have it way tougher than I do—and way tougher than I ever have. Be grateful, be gracious, and be giving.

-Ask “Why me?” about everything you receive—both good and bad.

-Struggling and persevering in faith do not always give you the result you want. But sometimes they get you what you need.

-Life may lead you to many callings, not just one. Appreciate all of them.

Christ has lifted me once again to this new opportunity at Limestone. It is my intention to take full advantage of this, and to enjoy the ride—no matter how large the hills and valleys might be.

This time, I hope to stay in one place for a long, long time. But whatever happens, we will roll with it. Up and down and back up the hill again.

Clemson Football and the Hypocrisy of “Shut Up and Dribble”

We all love our football teams, basketball teams, favorite athletes. But do we “love” them enough to listen to them on issues that don’t involve winning games?

Anyone who has known me for more than 10 minutes knows how I feel about Clemson. Particularly Clemson football.

I was raised to love one team: Furman. And I was raised to despise one team: Clemson.

The reasons that I was raised this way are largely irrelevant. I have rarely, if ever, pulled for Clemson in any sport on any level. The exception is Clemson basketball, where I have always hoped for them to beat UNC in Chapel Hill. Now that this task is complete, I will return to the status quo of my feelings for (or should I say against?) the Tigers.

(Actually, I am much less anti-Clemson than I once was. But I’m not happy about it).

Now that my explicit bias is out, I confess that I am now torn. I find myself in a place where I am slightly inclined to pull for the Clemson football players while still being against some of their fans. The reason goes beyond the common parlance of fan bases who lob accusations against one another.

In their game against Virginia on October 3, a handful of Clemson players put messages on their jerseys that some fans deemed too “political” in nature.

Let me offer some background. I started to write this blog weeks ago, as many athletes began to express their views regarding race and equity in this country. The response of many people mimicked Laura Ingraham’s “order” to LeBron James when he expressed his political views.

She said that LeBron should “Shut up and dribble.” It is hard to imagine a more condescending response to an athlete expressing an opinion. This is a stark contrast to her stance regarding other athletes who lean more towards her views.

This came up again last week in a Tweet from a sports commentator that I follow. He leans much more conservative than I; hence, I pay attention to his excellent sports commentary and give little heed to his political views. However, he expressed a view that some deemed to be too “political.”

Their “command” to him? “Stick to sports.” I do not even know what the original tweet was, and I am still disturbed by the response. You may not like it, but sports personalities are not obligated to silence on all subjects other than sports.

This came to a head on Saturday, when Clemson fans began to express their displeasure with the displays on the back of the jerseys of some Tiger players. I committed the cardinal sin of reading the comments about this. I saw fans vent the anger and outrage and threats to “disown” the program over the political messaging.

And what were those messages?

Justice

Love

Matter

Vote

Equality

Peace

Change

The entire team warmed up with black tshirts with the words “We need change.”

Wow. What disturbing, upsetting, “political” messages these are. If you abandon the program for these messages, that is a lot closer to dipping your foot in the pool than being “All In.”

Let us start with the fact that not all Tiger fans felt this way. I saw tweets and posts from many who supported the players in their call for justice and unity in our society. Coach Dabo Swinney did not care for the approach but did allow his players to do it. Other fans expressed dislike for the players’ decision (much like Dabo) but supported their right to make that choice.

To those who were so horribly offended by these “political” statements? Maybe Clemson is better off without you.

Sports is a multi-BILLION dollar industry in this country. Local governments, state legislatures, congress and the President of the United States offer commentary and criticism and even ultimatums to sports leagues. State institutions rake in millions of dollars from university athletic programs.

And coming soon to your state tax office: Profits from sports gambling.

Like it or not, sports IS political—not to mention societal.

How many people have gained political access by using their millions/billions of dollars to curry favor or influence in the political process? But suddenly, when athletes or sports commentators exercise similar influence, we want them to “shut up and dribble.”

We’re past that in sports. Way, way past that.

We may want our sports with silence, but it is far too large of a force in society to continue expecting—much less demanding—such a stance.

If you do not like what team or school or sports personality says about politics or think that their perspective is unwarranted, you can ignore them or stop following them. You also have no restriction on expressing your viewpoint.

But neither should they. Before you make the choice to abandon your team because they exercise their rights, think long and hard about the message you are sending.

We cheer these young men and women, rejoice in their on-field success and claim it is OUR success. Think about the terminology we use in reference to players, particularly at a program of Clemson’s stature.

Our guys (or girls)

We

My

Us

Love

(Yes, love).

“I love MY Tigers!” or whoever your team happens to be is pretty common among fans. But are these truly terms of love, or are they terms of ownership?

If we only love them when they are winning games for us and not when they have something to say, then those terms of affection and unity ring extremely hollow.

Better yet, if we threaten to withdraw our investment in that affection and unity when they speak, then perhaps we view players more as property than people, a commodity that we “love” only in the way that we do our car or our best shirt or our favorite food.

If we are going to cheer athletes on the field of play—particularly athletes that do not look like most of the people in the stands—then why are we so threatened by listening to their views of what is happening off the field? As long as they are winning and successful, it’s “Our” and “Us” and “We.” But when they ask us to consider matters beyond the field, it suddenly becomes “they” and “them.”

Some might call that a “plantation” mentality. While you may not like the term, I would challenge you to disagree with the perspective. If you choose to disagree, I would further challenge you to consider it from the athlete’s perspective, particularly black athletes.

Some of you may ask, “What if one of the players endorsed a candidate? How would you feel then?” That would change the equation, to be sure.

But let’s cross that bridge if we come to it, shall we? From what I saw on the Clemson jerseys on that Saturday night, they did not endorse any party or politician. They endorsed a view of humanity.

If you cannot agree with that view or think that these young men should simply play football without regard to the human condition, so be it. That is your right.

Just keep in mind that they are not chattel utilized to satisfy your unfulfilled athletic ambitions. And they are under no obligation to shut up just because they wear the uniform of the school that you like.

If you truly value them as human beings, then spend your time contemplating their messages rather than just cheering when they do well for you on the field.

Like it or not, it is vital to morality and Christian ethics to support these athletes both on and off the field. And that means listening to them while we cheer, and long after the cheering has stopped.

The Enemy Within—Again (aka Part II)

I started this post the day after the first Presidential debate—and it took me this long to finish it. I hope that this post offers a bit more hope than the debate itself.

Did you watch the Presidential Debate last week? I did—for approximately 26 seconds.

Civic duty = check.

Why did I not watch more of it? How can I be that disinterested in the future of our nation? The answer is found in the Facebook posts of my friends on both sides of the political aisle.

“Well that was just about as ugly as it gets. No winners here tonight…”

“Do we really think more of these will help anyone?”

And my personal fave: “Can we send both of them back and start with two new candidates?”

Yes, plenty of friends and family confirmed that I made the right decision. Quite honestly, that decision had much more to do with concern for these friends and family, not to mention my sanity.

Short of a drastic bombshell that I can read/hear on the morning news feed, the debate was not going to change my vote. Watching the hot mess would alienate me further from my neighbor, and likely not change my mind regarding the election. Not one iota.

At the same time, watching and/or commenting on the debates is likely to infuriate and alienate people that I love on either side of the aisle. Therefore, I sat this one out.

Am I a wimp? Maybe. But instead of adding to the already volatile concoction of our current social/political/religious climate, I am spending some time considering what might bring us to a measure of peace. And I have come up with several additional solutions beyond the suggestions of my last post.

The first solution is a seemingly simple one that I chose to put into practice: Keep your mouth shut.

Okay. Yeah, I know. There has never been a LeGrand in history (that we know of anyway) that valued peace and unity enough to keep quiet. Least of all me.

But to use the most over-used term of 2020, in these “unprecedented” times, maybe the present calls on us to learn the value of silence.

I am not talking about complete silence in relation to the issues that you deem to be critical to your soul. Or to the future of the church. Or the future of the nation. I am talking about silence in regard to those in your circle of family and friends who will not agree with you, no matter what.

Let us face the reality of our societal polarization. If there is anything “unprecedented” about these times, it is the fact that we are polarized in a way unseen since perhaps the Civil War. In such a reality, we are not likely to sway our neighbor and our neighbor is not likely to sway us.

Therefore, it would better serve us to love one another and walk away from the bitterness of political debate.

Let us acknowledge the reality of our societal polarization. It is arguably elevated to a level unseen since the Civil War. In this present reality, we are unlikely to sway our neighbor, relative, or Facebook friend. And they are just as unlikely to sway us.

We cannot abandon our convictions just to appease others, particularly for . However, we can pursue wisdom to recognize how to fruitfully and productively express those convictions. It is highly unlikely that such wisdom will lead us to social media or lengthy arguments with our neighbor.

Choose instead to pour yourself into tangible, visible needs that are likely to make a difference beyond the bluster of bitterness. Voters need transportation in states where government has closed or severely limited access to polling places. Poll monitors are needed to ensure that all people are granted their constitutional right to vote. And poll workers are needed in numerous counties across the nation. Senior adults are often the anchors for such polling places, and many are unable to help out of concerns about COVID-19.

Yes, raise your voice when a spirit-filled conviction overwhelms your soul. But do so carefully, selectively, and in the most productive way. Action is always the most productive method for voicing those convictions.

Make sure you do this after testing those convictions with the wisdom of scripture, trusted confidants, and community. All of us need accountability, and these three things can guide us to greater productivity instead of pointless, self-righteous rage.

Speaking of self-righteous rage—an ailment to which I am extremely prone—we cannot forget the greatest commandment during this election season. No matter who wins, or how upset it makes us, or how enraged we get, we cannot abandon our true Christ-like calling:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

There are no qualifiers to this. Jesus did not say to love only your neighbors who vote Republican or Democrat. He did not say to love only your neighbors who agree with you on matters of policy and practice. He said to love ALL of your neighbors—even those who are lowly Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37).

We are in an era where anger can easily consume us and turn us towards pure hate. Hate of others. Hate of political ideology. Hate of failures in the system. This is never the answer. As Jesus (and Ghandi, and King, and many others) tell us, hate only breeds more hate.

One of our neighbors down the street displays a sign in their window that says, “Hate Has No Place Here” in English, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. If that is true, then we have to leave room to love everyone, even those who disagree with our social, political, and religious convictions.

It’s really very simple. Jesus did it. Therefore, so must we strive to do the same—whether we like it or not.

Yes, I am angry at a myriad of things that I think are unjust, unconstitutional, unequal, un-American, and un-Christian in our society. I am frustrated by those who disagree with this perspective. Or support policies that I find morally and ethically offensive to my perspective on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet, I am compelled by that same Christ to recognize that they have a different view of the Gospel. And that they are my neighbor, just as the immigrant, African-American, poor person, fellow church member, or political ally is my neighbor. I am therefore compelled to find a way to love them in spite of our differences.

I will continue to vote, advocate, and fight for policies that I believe are just in our society. As I do that, I also have to fight to love my neighbor, remembering that “neighbor” in the words of Jesus did not mean those with whom we agree. He meant it to include everyone. To those who recognized the one who was “justified” in the treatment of their neighbor, he gave the simplest (and hardest) of commands: “Go and do likewise.”

As I continue to fight for what I believe to be right, I will also fight to follow the greatest commandment.

Perhaps my greatest lesson in this comes from an interaction that I had with a long time valued and trusted friend on—wait for it—Facebook. I responded to an inquiry from him, and this is how I started my response:

“What I believe we can agree on is that we love and care about one another, about our respective families, and that we have been through too much for too long to let our disagreements divide…I will always look up to you for the incredible love and support you have given me over the years. This will never change no matter how you feel about my views or how I speak out. As always, you still hold me accountable for trying to express those views in a more positive and Christian way. Anytime you want to talk about life, faith, and family, I am here for that—all day, every day…if you ever need anything, I will do everything in my power to be there for you—all of you.”

His response?

“On this part…we can always agree.”

If we can agree on that, then we can always find a path to love our neighbor. Even when our convictions lead us in opposite directions at the ballot box.

The Enemy Within

Since September 11, 2001, we regularly hear about threats from “outsiders” who want to infiltrate and damage the nation. The biggest threat to a people is the rot that happens from the inside-out.

It seems to me that becoming a Master of the Twitter-verse takes a lot more time, effort, and energy than I am willing to devote. Or waste. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may not believe that, but I put less energy into it than you think.

Despite my lack of Twitter prowess, once in a blue moon I tweet something that strikes a chord with my dozen or so followers. Perhaps it hits a few people beyond that. A couple weekends ago was one of those occasions.

Pete Buttigieg is a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and Democrat candidate for president in 2020. South Carolina congressman James Clyburn essentially put an end to his and all other bids by endorsing Joe Biden. But as an extremely young candidate, Buttigieg surely has political ambitions for the future.

He tweeted a question that at one time served as the calling card for President Ronald Reagan. “Aren’t you better off than you were four years ago?” One of my followers replied that it is much more important to ask if our neighbor is better off than four years ago. I re-tweeted this, with some commentary.

By my rather humble standards, this got a lot of “likes” and retweets. Sadly, not nearly enough people buy into the neighborly philosophy. We forget the foundational ideals of loving our neighbor.

Since September 11, 2001, we have heard ongoing messages about how we need to fear enemies who are outside of this nation. We have lumped Muslims, secularists, immigrants, and generally anyone who does not look like or think like the stereotypical American into this “outsider” category.

Yet, we see a nation that seems more divided than ever and a church that feels powerless to speak into the void of leadership and humanity. Followers of Christ are picking sides, and churches struggle more and more to remain politically neutral, not to mention morally relevant.

This struggle is internal. Outsiders did not do this to us. We did it to ourselves.

The biggest threat to the United States may be the enemy in our own hearts, homes, schools, towns, and places of worship. This is certainly the biggest threat to the American church, and it is slowly eating away at the church’s ability to have a moral compass. Much less provide moral guidance.

If we look at the people of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament, we find out that the biggest threat to a nation or congregation never came from the outside. The internal rot in the hearts of communities causes the mayhem and weeping, if not the outright destruction.

One of the two greatest commandments cited by Jesus is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Why is this becoming a greater struggle for us? We have either forgotten the essence of this command or we have lost the internal will to follow it. Or maybe both. Or maybe we are just choosing to disregard it.

All of these options are bewildering and potentially devastating. I do not offer this assessment with any hint of righteousness. The self-proclaimed World’s Worst Pastor is as guilty as anyone, and some days are worse than others.

In the Age of Trump, of Progressivism, of protest, of counterprotest, and of rampant “Cancel Culture” that exist across all realms of politics, religion and culture—how can we recapture a commitment to love of neighbor over self?

While I have many opinions (never a shortage of those in our house), I will not venture into the world of systemic or political changes that need to happen. Those are better left for more qualified experts. I will offer a few suggestions, with more to come as we venture forward in this fresh chaos called 2020.

One place to begin is to stop identifying our neighbor with every aspect of everything that he or she supports in some way.

This is certainly a challenge in an era where we tend to decorate our houses, our cars, or ourselves in the garb of our political allegiances. I am not apologetic for saying that some of the devotion to Donald Trump seems disturbing and dangerous.

However, not every person who voted (or will vote) for Donald Trump supports every aspect of Trump’s policies or actions. In the same way, not every person who says Black Lives Matter supports rioting or violence. They do not support every person or every aspect of the movement. It is high time that we acknowledge this among our neighbors.

As an example, I am unapologetically a follower of Christ and believe in the vitality of discipleship in Christ as an essential aspect of humanity. This does not mean I support every idea, theory, concept, or theological position of others who call themselves Christian. It does not mean that I agree with every aspect of those who equate “true” Christianity with following—or opposing—Donald Trump.

When this election is over, we are going to have to find some pathway towards living together in the extreme divisiveness that of this present world. This gets much tougher if we focus on the extremes. If we can recognize the validity of humanity beyond the extremes in ideology, then we have a much greater opportunity to find pathways towards the future.

Forging such pathways is not going to be easy, no matter what political circumstances engulf us after November 3, 2020. To develop some level of understanding, empathy, and humanity, I turn to one thing that seems to bring us together for the common good: Service. Not to politicians or so-called “leaders,” but to others.

In my work and study, the one common denominator that creates empathy and understanding is a commitment to love our neighbor by serving our neighbor. This is unquestionably a command of Jesus Christ, and it is the one thing that seems to create understanding among the servants and the served.

No matter who the president or the pastor or the political commentator is, we cannot avoid the call of God to serve our neighbor above ourselves. By focusing on that call, we gain an empathetic understanding of the “other” that is noticeably absent in videos and news reports.

By serving together for a common good, we learn more about those that we serve and about one another. We learn about the struggles of those who do not look like us or live like us. Most important, we learn about the love of Christ that looks at others as equal to us.

When the Pharisee/lawyer is confronted with Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he replies with a question. “And who is my neighbor?”

It is really a smart-aleck question. He knows damn well who his neighbor is, but he is hoping that Christ will say something to get him off the hook. Jesus does the opposite by putting him ON the hook to love people the Pharisee was taught to despise.

No matter where we stand on November 4, the command to “Love your neighbor” is not going away. By recognizing that there is more to our neighbor than political or social opinions, maybe we can forge a pathway for Christ rather than violent political rhetoric and racial slurs.

Perhaps then we can spend more time serving others and less time on social media. We might be stunned at what we learn if we put down our phones and work together to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, educate the children, and understand the other. It certainly seems that is what Jesus would call on us to do.

May we learn to go and do likewise—with all of our neighbors, in all corners of the globe.