Pastor’s Perspective – January 2021
Optimism. You might remember the term. It was optimism that infused the ministries of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. His book, “The Power of Positive Thinking” was required reading in the 20th Century and a rallying call for mainline Christians. Peale and his wife Ruth co-founded Guideposts, the monthly devotional that guided the spirituality of two generations of faithful believers. Norman Vincent Peale was cut from the same ministerial cloth as Fred Rogers. Both began with the gospel story of Jesus and extrapolated the gospel message to the mainstream American middle class. They helped to make Christian faith ubiquitous with American values.
The message boiled down to this simple truth. You are worthy of God’s grace and love.
It is hard to believe in this egotistical moment, but there was a time when Americans did not believe they were worthy. There was a time when people believed that they were corrupt and evil, that their sins counted against them. There was a time when people believed that they were not worthy of heaven.
When Norman Vincent Peale published his book, Harry Truman was the President and General Dwight Eisenhower was still a month away from winning the 1952 Presidential election. The American people were beginning to emerge from the post war years, and the industrial boom years were still ahead. While racism was still a powerful obstacle, African Americans were beginning to find the confidence and the spiritual strength to stand up for their God-given rights.
No matter what the problems were (and there were many) the American people had an optimistic spirit.
Peale’s book was the proverbial right message delivered at the right time, but this is not to say that he was universally appreciated. Many theologians and psychologists criticized his theological assertions and his psychological methods. His teachings turned psychanalysis on its head, moving the person away from self-evaluation and criticisms of the past and toward re-imagination and what became known as “visualization.” So instead of pouring over the past to discover why you were such a mess, Peale encouraged his followers to imagine and visualize a person that had overcome his addictions and flaws. Positive thinking meant that the future was more important to one’s daily work than the past.
When the power of positive thinking met the Revivalist movement of the Rev. Billy Graham and the racial reconciliation movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the trajectory of the next forty years of the Church was established. Positive thinking was easily integrated into both liberal and conservative Churches to look to the future instead of endlessly debating the past.
I share this with you as 2020 transitions into 2021. 2020 was a difficult year; a time of political turmoil and a literal plague. 2020 was a relentlessly negative year. It capped a season of negativity that consistently informed the American people of the obstacles of racism, sexism, and economic inequality, and it did so with an unyielding message concerning our negative past. The can-do American optimism of my childhood was replaced by a daily reminder that everything that we once knew was wrong. Worse yet, it replaced the transformative message of Graham and King with a message that individual persons and collective groups were irredeemable because of who they were or what their ancestors had done or where they were born.
Oddly both progressives and conservatives bought into the zeitgeist.
Both sides of the political aisle and both sides of the denominational divide lost sight of the redemptive nature of humanity. Decades ago, both the secularists and the faithful believed in a redemptive transformation of humanity. In the sixties, the Age of Aquarius and the Second Coming offered two different paths to the same redemptive ending. In the 21st Century both sides seem to be focused less on the Pearly Gates and more on the killing fields that will rid the world of our enemies.
What does this say about the Church? About the nation? How can we evaluate what is happening in the soul of the nation?
Something happened in both evangelicalism (the Conservative wing of the Church) and liberalism (the progressive wing of the Church) that has made both wings of the Church profoundly negative and fundamentally anti-Christian. We lost sight of the redemptive intentions of God. Redemption means that you must be changed to be correct. Redemption is not something you are born with, but something that you are specifically born without. In Christian faith it must be given by God, but in the strictest of terms redemption is something that can be earned through work and sacrifice. Redemption means that your past does not matter as much as your future. It is not who you were, it is who you can be that is important.
I grew up Roman Catholic. When I became a Baptist, my Sunday School teachers made sure that I knew that salvation was not something that could be earned. They had wrongly concluded that my Roman Catholic heritage taught me that I could or should earn my salvation with good deeds and right behaviors. They were wrong. I was not told that I could earn salvation, but that I had been born into it. I had inherited my salvation. What the Baptists did not understand is that they were teaching their children the very same truth.
Modern Americans believe that we are born with an unchangeable identity based on our ethnicity and religious identity. We are now separated by tribes in ways that would horrify Dr. King and Billy Graham. The inherited identity of the citizen is what animates both the BLM movement and the America first adherents. Each tribe claims to have been violated by their enemies as a matter of identity. Both believe that their enemies are inherently and eternally different. Both claim a historical grievance that can only be resolved by a mystical inversion and unsubtle elimination of the perpetrator class. Both seek a holy separation of the tribes for the sake of righteousness.
None of our theological imagery has been able to penetrate the exaggerated divide between the tribes. Not because of any divine weakness but because salvation can only come to those who see themselves as humble and weak. Our tribal fetish shields us from the gospel because it affirms a sort of power-driven victimization. The result of which is not repentance nor a “poor in spirit” mentality. Instead it creates a violent anger and rage that pushes us away from God’s comfort, grace, and love. We cannot see a possibility of the lion lying down with the lamb because we imagine ourselves as both. We are the innocent and the powerful. Our self-righteous rage motivates us to consume our enemies without compassion or grace, because they are other, and the others DESERVE punishment.
This is why our moment is so fraught with danger for the Church. We are at the precipice of leaving God’s feast to pursue violence against our brother. We must repent or be cast out of God’s presence.
No person should be considered an eternal enemy since, by the blood of Christ, all can become our brother. This is our hope. This is the power of positive thinking that must be reclaimed by the Church. It is time to hope again, not in our governmental systems, political parties, or economic strength, but in the power of a transformative God. The triune God who can heal us and make us one in Christ Jesus.
I am optimistic for 2021, not because we are good, but because God is great, loving and full of grace!