Must American Businesses Convert or Die?

Hobby LobbyJesus said: What are you people like? What kind of people are you? You are like children sitting in the market and shouting to each other, “We played the flute, but you would not dance! We sang a funeral song, but you would not cry!” (Luke 7:31)

I visited Hobby Lobby for the first time last month. The store was clean and well organized; staff was friendly and helpful; the store had a great selection of crafty products at reasonable prices. The only indication that this business was on the margin of acceptability was the occasional Christian melody I heard playing while browsing, and the ample selection of religious items for sale.

Of course that in itself is not a problem. After all, religious people are a significant share of the market so to cater to them makes good retail sense. Their money is as good as the next guy’s.

The problem is the products and the music aren’t just about marketing and the bottom line—that would be perfectly OK—rather, they are a reflection of the deeply held beliefs of the employer. Moreover, those beliefs inform the decisions of the corporation, and in the case of Hobby Lobby, that means that the owners believe human life, even at the cellular level, is sacred and must be protected. Hence, when it came to their attention that a handful of the contraceptives to be provided by their company were abortifacients, their conscience kicked in and they demurred, refusing to provide those drugs. Not all contraceptives, mind you, but those drugs which terminated a pregnancy.

Heresy! That a company would not provide all contraceptives, regardless of their nature, to their employees proved to some an unacceptable threat to liberty. What followed was the Supreme Court challenge, Burwell (formerly Sebelius) vs. Hobby Lobby. The outcome of that landmark case was to uphold the right of a company to make corporate decisions based on the personally held religious beliefs of the owners.

Notice what was at stake here. The court was deciding whether a business owner could be allowed to make decisions consistent with his/her religious worldview and still remain in business. It was deciding whether Hobby Lobby should be required to change its point of view and modify its creed—convert or die. In this case the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation such as Hobby Lobby could still participate in the free market.

Other businesses have not been so lucky.

Hide Out in the Pews

Consider the case of Cynthia and Robert Gifford who own a farm in New York. As part of their business they use their property for a variety of gatherings—pumpkin patch, corn maze, birthday parties; a rather impressive selection of family activities. They also have been a popular venue for weddings and receptions. And therein lies the problem: As Christians they feel strongly that a marriage ceremony reflects a covenant before God and that marriage is between a man and a woman. Therefore, they did not feel they could provide the venue for a same-sex wedding. That got them in trouble with the State of New York when a lesbian couple complained that they were denied services at the Gifford’s “Liberty Ridge Farm.”

It may be important to note that the Giffords were willing to host the reception even though they declined to host the ceremony. That surprised me. It seemed to me that both events would have been problematic, but that was their choice. Either way, they wound up in court and came out of the courtroom with a $13,000.00 fine and a decision to make. Would the fine serve to rehabilitate them and change their behavior? Would they modify their convictions as a cost of doing business? According to reports, they chose instead to modify their business. In the future they will not host wedding ceremonies on their property.* That will result in a significant loss in revenue, but it should prevent any future conflicts of conscience and keep them out of hot water with the state.

Predictably there were shouts of outrage from Christian and conservative circles—an attack on the first amendment, they cried. An affront to religious liberty! There were those who differed, though. Consider this comment posted to a report at the Religious News Service web site:

[Liberty Ridge Farm is] not a church and it is open for business to the general public. The state’s anti-discrimination laws are pretty clear on the subject…If you want to be able to discriminate on services provided to the public, declare yourself a church or do not advertise openly…Religious freedom does not give you the right to discriminate in open commerce. Such discrimination is committing a willful harmful act against another. Free Exercise of religion has never ever allowed such a thing.

The message is clear. If you have religious convictions, you should not be able to keep them and remain business. You’ve a right to your beliefs as long as you don’t intend to live consistently with them in the world of commerce. You need to be willing to compartmentalize your faith and surrender to the state. It’s the law. Otherwise, you should retreat to your church, keep quiet and make a living some other way…if you can.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that persons of sincere and unyielding faith must be driven from the marketplace. They must take the mark or be forbidden to buy or sell.

So, am I saying meanness, rancor and hostility are appropriate reactions toward consumers with whom we disagree? Am I proposing a license to slam the door or pontificate in the face of someone who requests services that impinge upon our conscience? Absolutely not. To kindly refer a customer to a competitor who does not have the same compunctions we have is appropriate and respectful. Only know that a customer whose business we decline may well circulate a bad review among friends and across the internet or, as was the case in New York, take us to court.

And if that happens, what should be our response? To arms! Take up your swords and charge once again into the culture wars? Christians, write your congressperson! Circulate a petition! Demand your rights!

No. It has always been too late for that.

These are the days of counting the cost. We live in times that force us to consider what we can and cannot do as a matter of conscience, and having discerned the course we must follow, live accordingly. If the demands of faithfulness and conscience call us to defend ourselves before the courts then make a defense, and if in the end our business must convert or die, then die it must.

*At this writing, the web site of Liberty Ridge Farm lists weddings and receptions as part of their line of services. It is unclear when (or if) that will be updated.

Power Outage in the Church

abraham-lincoln“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

Once again Honest Abe shows his wisdom. Power, the ability to do or act, can be a dangerous commodity, particularly in a church congregation. I have observed many times over the years how people gravitate to little pockets of power within the church. There is something attractive about a prominent office that empowers its holder to exert control over others. These little territories — Sunday school, worship, elders board, even maintaining the building — are often jealously guarded and ruthlessly administered.

Lincoln is right. A position of power is a great revealer of character. Anyone who occupies such positions in the church must do their work as Jesus demonstrated: with a basin and towel, kneeling at the feet of the people.

Working at Friendship

aussiegall via Compfight cc

Jesus said it was a new commandment (John 13:34-35). New? Wasn’t it part of the “Great Commandment” the first part of which was to love God? So, how could this one be new if it was featured so prominently in the Great Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself?

There is key difference between the “Great” and the “New.” It is the Greek word allelon (al-lay’-lone) that is, “one another.” The inclusion of this word means the commandment is given to a group. You can love your neighbor by yourself, but you cannot love one another by yourself. It is a joint enterprise that is to reflect in its practice the Lord who gave it: as I have loved you, love one another.

Furthermore, by it our identity as disciples of the Son of God will be known. It is the badge, the mark, the honor of the Christian. May we suggest that this command is at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? That is why membership* in a community of followers is so vital. You cannot obey Christ’s command without it.
Note that Jesus calls loving one another a command, not a suggestion or a good idea. He called it a command. That requires an intentional response. It doesn’t happen accidentally or as a matter of convenience. Neither does it happen when it feels good. It happens when a member of the community needs love, not when I feel like loving. The response to the command is not a feeling, but a doing.

That says something about the nature of loving one another: it is practical. In other words, it is something we do in response someone’s need—a practical response. To respond to the command is to “do love” when love needs doing. That isn’t to say that we aren’t to feel affection for other disciples—we can rejoice when we do—but affection, that warm regard for a brother or sister, is not required for us to do for others what they need in order to be loved. We are to act in love whether or not we feel it.

It is that quality of loving intentionally and practically that makes fellowship evident. Such outward expressions of love make Christ visible. “All that Jesus began to do and teach while he was with us” (Acts 1) are to be continued by his body, the church, as she loves intentionally, practically and visibly like he did.

Furthermore, the body matures in that environment. When Jesus prayed that his followers would be one and perfected in unity (John 17) he was praying that the conviction of unity (call it a covenant) would cause his disciples to grow as they bumped up against one another and smoothed their rough edges. People get good at togetherness and grow in grace by refusing to abandon a relationship when things get hard.

That is why it is so important to choose our comrades in faith wisely and well. Moreover, if we expect to love intentionally, practically and visibly, and be loved in the same way, it will be in a “one another fellowship” where the members* are known—we call it, “a church of the heart”. This is the heart of fellowship. It is choosing to live in a community that is small enough so its members are not lost to each other, or so distantly known that they aren’t challenged in their love. That isn’t to say that in larger churches people cannot know and be known, only that in such congregations it is easier to avoid the hard work of loving intentionally, especially when we find certain people irritating. As I am fond of saying, in a house church you can run but you cannot hide. In a larger congregation it’s easy enough to hide.

When considering our fellowship in Christ, the question is not, “where do I go to church?” but, “with whom has God directed me to BE the church?” It is an important and fearful question. Jesus command is for me to love my group as he had loved his group. That means sacrifice. It means finding a gathering of people among whom I can lay down—lay down my life. That is fellowship in the finest sense of the word.
* By membership, we don’t mean a signature on a church document or the completion of some catechism. We mean membership one of another, to be known deeply and transparently; to be entrusted into the world of another follower of the Jesus Way.

He Restores My Soul

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”

~Psalm 23:2-3a

As I reflect on the relationship I have with The Lord, living into a life where He is my Shepherd, I begin to learn that He has a plan for my well-being. In my humanness, entrusted with free will, I must be retrained in harnessing such a potent gift, and learn how to be lead. If I don’t learn to follow, I will wander like Israel in the wilderness. If I don’t learn to trust Him, fear will motivate my choices and determine my path. If I don’t learn that He is good, I will determine a good of my own choosing, and follow in Eve’s futile example.

After 42 years of walking with Him, I see how He has led me on an incredible journey. Often, a promise is offered to my heart, and a choice emerges that sets His will opposite from my own.

I once had a staff position that I loved at a large inner city church. One day, The Lord asked me to resign from that position. He said, “If you give up what you are satisfied with….I will give you what you are hungry for.” He has been in the process of making me lie down in green pastures ever since.

Dan and I are house sitting this week on some property entirely different than our own. We live in the core of the city of Portland…a few miles from the airport…..a short distance from train tracks and a freeway, and blocks from a busy street. We have learned to live with the activity and the noise. But this week, we have come aside to a place where our hearts can be stilled, our ears can hear Him in the silence, and our hope is fixed on Him. He restores our soul.

The Lord is My Shepherd

One of the most familiar phrases in all of scripture is the line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  It has been uttered on the battlefield through lips rehearsing what they remembered from their mother’s lap.  It has been read over the grave as a loved one is laid to rest.  It is memorized in the early years of Sunday school.  Somehow this song written by David brings even the unbeliever some sort of comfort.  Why does this image capture our hearts?

Whether we recognize it or not, we are a stubbornly, independent people.  We are raised with the image of the solitary, rugged individual hero, who can triumph in almost every situation.  We hold up the image of a super mom who can be all things to all people all of the time, buying organic, cooking gourmet, fashionably fit, tan, and cute at the end of the day.  But our heart longs for One who is higher than ourselves, and knows us better than we can even imagine.

This first verse tells me I belong.  I have someone who has chosen me, and has identified Himself as the responsible party.  Because David knew who he was for the sake of his sheep, He had a good grasp of what it would mean to be carried in the Great Shepherds’ arms.  Is this the reason he could say, “I shall not want”?  Because he knew his own heart concerning the well-being of his flock, could he grasp the nature of His Abba’s loving kindnesses?

If you find your heart longing for a greater Someone than yourself, in this hour, entrust yourself to the Lamb who leads you to the Shepherd who is willing to carry you.

Who Needs Bonhoeffer?

The forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer is  … that we should strive to be a church that wouldn’t need him! I worry that people will either look for the next Bonheoffer or try to be the next Bonhoeffer in some heroic protest, rather than entering the more humble protests of daily life. I worry that people will think that large gestures of protest are the way to change the world, rather than entering on the difficult daily path of ordinary resistance. You see, Bonhoeffer had to be Bonhoeffer because the national church in Germany failed to be the church at all.

This is the forgotten lesson of Bonhoeffer: The Church in Germany had failed!


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