Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"GOD TOLD ME..."

Have you ever heard the voice of God? Without hesitation, there are some of you that can answer this with a resounding "Yes!" And I'm happy for you. But I'm also a bit jealous. In the twenty some years I've been a Christian, I can't recall a single time I've ever heard from God. At least, not directly. And never with 100% certainty like some of you.

On second thought, there was that one time at youth camp. It wasn't an audible voice. Just a nudge of sorts. But I was certain it was God speaking. Directly to me! And that is why I got up in front of everyone and shared that God had called me to full-time ministry. Which is crazy, considering that I liked to party and smoke weed. That I really wanted to go to school to be a physical therapist. And growing up I was, without a doubt, an introvert. At the time, I was so debilitatingly (spell check tells me this isn't a word, but I'm using it anyway) shy I would have rather cut off my own arm than stand in front of hundreds of my peers and divulge that kind of information.

For years I was certain the only explanation for any of this was that I heard directly from God. And the church reassured me of this. Time and again I had pastors, Sunday School teachers and college professors remind me that, to make a decision like that, God must have spoken to me. It seemed they had a pretty valid point. 14 hours of prayer. 18 hours preparing for Sunday's sermon. 10 hours doing outreach and evangelism. Counseling for another 10 hours. Home and hospital visits for 15 hours. 8 hours of community service. Various church and denominational meetings totaling 10 hours. Another 4 hours of anything else that needs done at the church. And last, but not least, 4 hours actually leading church services each week. I mean, what kind of nut-job would actually choose a career path that requires them to put in 114 hours each and every week?

Needless to say, I continued to believe that my desire to pursue full-time ministry had to be the direct result of God speaking to me. Which is why I changed my declared college major from pre-physical therapy to pastoral ministry. After four years of study, I inevitably landed my first (last and only) pastoral position. Coincidentally, upon leaving that church, doubt hit me hard. And, even though I realize doubt always seems to follow the moment your dreams are shattered (or is that just me), it hasn't let up much these last eight years. Doubt if I was, in fact, doing what God had told me. Doubt as to whether or not I actually heard from God that night at youth camp.

If I was just following God's voice, I can't help but wonder why things didn't work out differently? Why was I met with such opposition at the church? Why, after applying at 6 different churches since then have I not had a single interview? Why does it seem that will be the only position I ever hold in a church? Should I take this as a clear sign that God didn't actually speak to me about this sixteen years ago? It seems, according to most everyone in the church today, that when God speaks it is marked by great success. Everything works out in your favor. You win. If a venture fails, it was undoubtedly not from God.

But why wouldn't that be the case when Scripture indicates that "If God is for us, who can ever be against us?" (Romans 8:31) The only logical conclusion to draw from this is that following God will never lead to set-backs or failure, right? Well, I'm not certain this is such a great theology. And I wonder if those people that tell us "God told me..." and proceed to tell some story of great success have ever read the Bible? If they had, they might see that those that have done the bidding of God encountered more than their fair of pain, suffering, set-backs, rejection and failure. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when God speaks, it doesn't always seem to be rainbows and unicorns. At least, not according to the Bible.

To be quite honest, all of this has brought me to another important question. Does God still speak to us today? Not that I doubt he can. Nor do I doubt that he has. Clearly, God has spoken in the past. The Bible leads me to believe that he spoke directly to Abraham, Noah, Moses, David and Job (to name a few). But then God seems to stop speaking. Between the end of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the beginning of the Christian New Testament writings there is a 400 year silence (unless you're Catholic). God doesn't speak. So, nothing is written. And this drought of Gods' voice continues throughout the New Testament. From my recollection, he doesn't speak directly to anyone, with the exception of "the voice from Heaven" at Jesus' baptism. Any time a message needs to be relayed, God sends an angel to do the talking or he uses Jesus.

It could very well be that is what people mean when they utter "God told me..." Maybe they don't literally mean God spoke to them. Perhaps it's just their way of conveying that the Bible shed light on the situation for them. Like the time Martin Luther King, Jr. said he heard Jesus telling him "I will be with you." As this is something Jesus promised, it wouldn't be too far a stretch to hear a voice making that declaration. I, too, have "heard" the promises of Scripture and found assurance, encouragement and conviction within it's pages. But to equate that with "God told me..." needs to be tread lightly. If my understanding is correct, Jesus is the Word of God, of which the Bible is an account. Unless you believe God literally dictated every single word of the Bible to the authors, "God told me..." is not an entirely accurate statement. (I happen to believe that the Bible contains the personality and words of the authors who were inspired by God.)

Or could it have been the message was from the Holy Spirit. I know, upon Jesus' departure he bestowed us the gift of the Holy Spirit. To guide us. To counsel us. To convict us. And to comfort us. And this is yet another way God speaks into each of our lives. But even this is a bit murky for me. Is that knot in my stomach the Holy Spirit doing its work? Maybe the goosebumps I get in certain situations? Or when the hair on the back of my neck stands up? I'm just not sure.

Which is why, anytime someone shares "God told me..." I cringe. Those three words bring out the skeptic in me. Maybe it's due to what I've just laid out. Perhaps it's because, as I said before, I'm not 100% certain I've heard directly from God. Then again, it might be that I've heard those words uttered as a sort of permission for all sorts of things. Things God shouldn't be put on the hook for. To quit a job. End a marriage. Make a financial investment. Take a huge risk. To exclude. To Discriminate. And to oppress. Did God actually speak? Who's to say it wasn't your conscience? Your own deep seeded desire? Individual bias? Prejudice? Indigestion from that microwave burrito? All to shirk responsibility?

Monday, March 2, 2015

PRIVATE

A friend recently found out that his girlfriend had been cheating on him. Angered by her admission, they broke up. The next day, while she was at work, he packed up her belongings and left them in the hallway, outside the door to their one bedroom apartment. Surprisingly, when she got home that evening he was met not with rage about her things being piled in the hall, but repentance. Teary eyed, she pleaded with him to take her back. She apologized for her lapse in judgment and made the case it would never happen again. They embraced, moved her stuff back into the apartment, and picked up where they left off. I wish I could tell you they went on to get married and live happily-ever-after, but I can't! Just a few weeks later it was splits-ville for this young couple. The trust issues were too much for him to overcome and too much for her to bear. The good news is that apparently it didn't take long for the emotional healing to set in. I know this, because he started dating a new girl just a few days later.

What makes this story more interesting is how I was apprised of this information. He didn't tell me in person. I didn't receive a phone call. It wasn't even typed out in a text. All of this information was divulged via social media. I, along with everyone else who knew the couple, was given front row seats to this Jerry Springer-ish episode that terminated their relationship.

This leads me to the blaring reality that, as a society, we have definitely blurred some lines. And not just the lines of what constitutes consent (I'm talking to you Robin Thicke). But the lines we have blurred between what becomes public and what remains private--all due to the abundance of information at our fingertips.

We need only turn on the television to see what everyday life of the rich and famous entails. Standing in the checkout lane at the grocery store we can read any number of magazines dedicated to spilling the details of celebrities 'extra-curricular' activities. Google gives us the ability to uncover the most up to date gossip on just about anyone. And, thanks to social media, we get to know (and see) far more about our friends and acquaintances than we probably care to.

It seems, according to the world, that nothing is private anymore. In what some may see as a terrible downturn in society, I find a glimmer of hope. This, in part, is paving the way for deep and relevant discussions on faith to take place in the public forum. Yet, when it comes to matters of faith, it seems a majority of us remain silent. Why is it that we will readily invite the entire world on our date, via instagram, yet we are so hesitant to open up about our beliefs?

I have a few answers to that question. First, there have been, and always will be, those that consider matters of faith to be irrelevant to the practical outworking of life. But, considering about 88% of Americans say "their religious faith is important in their life," I'd venture a guess that those who feel this way are in the minority. Of course, some people keep their mouths shut because the topic of faith tends to be so polarizing and divisive; and they'd rather not offend anyone. For the rest of us, the answer seems to be much more simple. For whatever reason, we still feel uncomfortable with these types of conversations. They single us out. They threaten our innate sense of comfort. So, we keep our faith private.

I can't help but think that we, Christians, only have ourselves to blame for this. We have advocated that following Jesus "isn't a religion, but a relationship." We claim that he is our personal savior. And we rebuttal that "only God can judge me." While there may be some validity to each of these, let's make a few things clear. If it's not worked out in our daily life, while interacting with other human beings, it's not a relationship Jesus would want any part of. He certainly may be our personal savior, but that doesn't negate the fact that he is also the savior of many others on this planet. Did he not come to seek and save all who are lost? Perhaps judgment is meant to be reserved for God, but we can't follow him all on our own. It's much more of a communal event. This type of language makes me wonder if we've lost sight of the bigger reality. That following Jesus isn't some monogamous, one-on-one, kind of thing we do in private.

Before you get down on yourself, the blame for our faith being privatized isn't solely on us. The church has had their hand in this as well. In some instances, the church has inadvertently made faith into a one-hour-a-week ritual. They have kept the topic of faith from leaving the confines of the four walls of their sanctuaries. Many of us walk through the doors, sing some catchy tunes, listen to some Biblical teaching, pass around an offering plate, and when all that is said and done, are informed we are free to leave because church is over.

I'm sorry to say, this approach is all wrong! Church isn't over once we leave. On the contrary, it's just beginning. Which is why it is crucial that churches offer us opportunities to engage with fellow believers outside the Sunday morning service. That they encourage us to wrestle with and question the teaching we just heard. That they challenge us to be bold enough to make a commitment, even with everyone's head up and eyes open. If these sorts of changes aren't made, can the church really expect us to be comfortable living out our faith Monday through Saturday? Do we really need to ask why Christians fear going public with their faith? When this is the approach some churches take with faith, it's quite obvious why we feel that honestly opening up about our beliefs will bring ridicule, rejection, or even persecution. If we can't be open an honest about our beliefs within the confines of church, how then, can we be expected to make our faith relevant outside those four walls? With those who have varying beliefs?

While I am advocating that we take our faith public, I need to take a moment to clarify some things. I'm not encouraging you stand on the street corner, notifying every passerby that they are "going to hell in a hand basket." To begin with, because I'm not entirely sure what a hand basket is. I also don't believe that's the type of public attention our faith needs. While I may be willing to have these conversations (with total strangers that show up at my door unannounced, handing out the Watchtower) I'm certain that I find myself in the minority. Most people find this approach too impersonal. Too pushy. And too judgmental. It's pretty arrogant of us to think we know where everyone stands with God.

What I would like to see is quite simple. That, in moving our faith from the private to the public forum, we simple share what we believe--when the opportunity presents itself. That we would be open and honest in our dialogue. That we would be wise enough to realize our words and actions will only go so far--they likely won't convert anyone. But the good thing is that we're not called to. The Bible makes it pretty clear that our responsibility is only to express "our hope" and the reason for it. And last, but certainly not least, we would be mature (and humble) enough to agree to disagree. To realize that we don't have the market on what it looks like to walk with Jesus. Especially when failing to do so causes unnecessary division. Because following Jesus isn't about uniformity but conformity to the life of the one who walked this Earth and laid down his life for even those who stood in opposition to him.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A CONVERSION ON HOMOSEXUALITY

My roommate met a woman. At first, I was ecstatic for him. He had been holding out for a while and she sounded like a great person. Their relationship quickly blossomed. Which was fine, until he decided to move down to Texas and marry her. That didn't really bother me. I just hated the fact my best friend was moving away and I was losing his half of the mortgage. Being recently divorced and having kept the house (and most of the debt), I relied on his rent to pay the bills. Having no potential roommates in mind, I turned to Craigslist and posted an ad with all the necessary information. Something along the lines of "Single Christian male, looking for a roommate. Must be clean!" Emphasis on "Must be clean!"

As you might assume, I got some interesting responses to the ad. One guy was willing to pay a hefty price for a place to meet his mistress. Quickly, I decided any amount of money was not worth getting in the middle of that situation. Then I got an email from a medical student that just moved here from California. I got in touch with him and set up a time to meet and show the house. During the tour he let me know that since moving here a month ago he had met a girl and the two of them just got engaged. A little fast for my taste, but that wasn't really any of my concern. At least, not until he dropped the bomb that she had a newborn and they would both be living with him in the spare room, along with their dog. Seeing as how a roommate had just turned into an entire family, I decided to keep looking. I received several more emails--a 65 year old truck driver, a self-admitted drug user, a lesbian couple, and an ex-con--none of which panned out.

Just as I was ready to give up, there in my inbox was a very promising response. The body of the email stated that he was a recent college graduate looking to move to Sioux Falls because of an internship he had just accepted. He was looking for a place to live for the next three or four months; possibly more if they offered him the job after the internship ended. We struck up a conversation via email. Eventually, he made the trip to Sioux Falls, with his father, to look at possible rentals.

After meeting him, I decided to take a chance and extend an offer. "Before I can accept" he said, "I need to let you know that I'm gay. If that changes things, I totally understand!"

As an Evangelical, how do you respond to that? Lay hands on him and cast out his "demon of homosexuality?" Push him out the door, informing him he's going to hell? Condemn him by quoting scripture, hoping it will convert him to heterosexuality? Tell him you'll "think about it," then politely revoke the invitation? Considering most of my beliefs on homosexuality were rooted in what the church taught me, any one of these could have been my initial response. And to be totally honest, the last response had crossed my mind. But for whatever reason my mouth said the exact opposite. The words that came across my lips were "That's not a problem at all." And just a few weeks later he moved in.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit skeptical of the whole situation at first. I thought it was going to be awkward--which is actually an understatement. But I think most of that was due to the fact that, as an Evangelical, I was taught to have a great disdain for homosexuality. One (I now see) rooted less in the fact that Scripture addresses it and more in the reality it was something I knew very little (if anything) about. They were different, so I avoided them and used scripture as my scapegoat. Believing the lies that I needed to separate myself from the chaff. To be in the world, not of it. To shine my light in the darkness. In other words, my biases were ill-conceived and based on complete ignorance.

Which is why I had decided to simply write them off. Up until that point, I had never taken then time to get to know a single person that identified with the LGBT population. I mean, I knew people that were gay. Celebrities. That guy that works at the coffee shop. Facebook friends. But it's not like I really knew any of them. I never spent time with them. I never talked to them. They weren't really my friends. Maybe acquaintances at best. But now, I was living with one of "them." I had no choice but to get to know them--to get to know him.

Living in the same house meant I would actually have to interact with him on a regular basis. We watched television. We talked. We shared meals. Over time, I noticed my guard began to dissipate. Eventually our conversations became less superficial. We transitioned from talking about the weather and work to things more significant. More real. We talked about our struggles. Our hopes. Our dreams. He wanted to know about my divorce. I asked about his family. He inquired how my dates went. I was inquisitive about his job. We talked about my involvement with the church--he was legitimately interested in my career path and even encouraged me to apply for church jobs. And for the first time in my life, I realized they aren't so different from us. They are people. Flesh and blood. Marrow and muscle. Created in the image of God. Just like you and me.

Needless to say, all of this set me on a course that would drastically alter my worldview. For starters, this new found friendship meant I had to dismiss all the labels Evangelicalism had fed me about homosexuality. He wasn't a pedophile. He didn't have a disease. Neither was he promiscuous or perverse. Getting to know him also lead me to the realization that it's not a choice. At least, not any more than who a heterosexual is or isn't attracted--it's all much more complicated than that.

Although many of my perceptions changed, there was still one nagging question that remained. One belief so deeply ingrained, due to the teaching of the church--that homosexuality is an abomination like nothing else. I still had my doubts if it was possible to be LGBT and truly love God. Not too long after he moved in, I found the answer. Which requires another story.

I had volunteered to be a site leader for our church's annual Dollar Car Wash. Out of all the days we scheduled this service project, it had to be the one day in months where the forecast wasn't sunny with clear skies. Depending on which weatherman you listened to, they were predicting a light drizzle to a heavy rain. Obviously, this doesn't bode well for a car wash. But weathermen have been known to be wrong on occasion, so I headed over to the bank parking lot to get everything set up. About an hour before we were supposed to start washing cars, a church-wide email was sent postponing the car wash for another day. Being a good leader, I decided to stay put for the next hour on the off chance some of the volunteers showed up anyway.

Sure enough, a few people arrived and I let them know our service project had been postponed for another day. Just as I figured it was safe to leave, one last individual showed up. I got out of my car, walked half way across the parking lot, where he struck up a conversation in the light drizzle that had started. For whatever reason, his heart was burdened to share something with me. Not knowing how I would react, he spent the next twenty or thirty minutes recounting his past, sharing with me his deepest, darkest secret--that he was a celibate homosexual.

This is someone I had called friend for years. A friend with whom I have attended two different churches. A friend I sat next to during Bible Study. A friend I had served with in various ministry positions. Although we were friends, he felt a need to keep this from me. Not because he wanted to; but because he had to due to the nature of our Evangelical beliefs. All things considered, I understand why. This one thing had the potential to create a chasm between him and the faith community he had grown to love.

If you were to take the time to actually get to know this man you would see that he loves God with all his heart. He has established a website dedicated to reaching those the church has cast out. He bares his soul and shares his own story. His fears. His struggles. His insight. All in hopes that it would save even one person from taking their own life. He wants to instill the value that the church has tried to take away from them. And to relay the truth that this gracious God actually loves them. The love this man has for his neighbor--who happens to be the LGBT population--is undeniable.

And if you claim to follow Jesus, it just so happens they are your neighbor too. At least that's what he tells us in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here Jesus imparts a message, it seems to me, we have missed entirely. Rather than accepting the harder truth of who our neighbor really is, we  have made the point of this story about how to treat someone in need. In one teachable moment, Jesus declares to this teacher of religious law that his neighbor, is in fact, the Samaritan--the man he so despises that he can't even bare repeat his name. (Which is why he doesn't refer to him as the Samaritan, but "The one who had mercy on him.) Even today, Jesus' parable challenges our preconceived notions of who is deserving of grace. Of who is worthy of love. Of who we are called to participate with in life and faith. In this parable is the stark warning that to justify ourselves, to ignore our own prejudices, and to exclude those we find "religiously inferior," is to disassociate ourselves with what God is doing here on earth--making his kingdom come.

So, in this friend, I found the answer.Yes! You can identify as a LGBT individual and love God.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

STUFF JESUS DIDN'T SAY, Part 3

We've come a long way from the Civil Rights movements of the '50s and '60s. We've moved beyond the necessity of staging protests and sit-ins. Society has finally come to the point where we can judge someone by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin--or their religious beliefs, social status, sexual orientation, etc. Or have we? In light of current events, I think it's safe to assume we haven't come as far as we once thought. Headlines reveal that persecution still plagues the Land of the Free. And if you listen closely, you can still hear the cries of people being persecuted just down the street.

But, there's just one problem! Most of those cries don't seem to be coming from where you might expect. For the most part, it's not coming from the minorities of this country--African Americans, Hispanics, Women, and homosexuals. Rather, throw a rock from where you are standing and you're bound to hit a church claiming they are being persecuted. Their pastors have taken center stage and exchanged preaching the word of God with taking shots at the minority left. Which has incited a mob like mentality within their congregations, with everyone protesting, "What poor, persecuted, people we are!"

So, this raises some important questions. To start with, is persecution a part of following Jesus? You bet! He, quite clearly, informed us that if we follow him persecution will come. One such example (of several) can be found in John 15:20 and 21. During his teaching, Jesus tells those listening that "A slave is not greater than the master. Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me." While we haven't misinterpreted Jesus' promise that there will be persecution, it seems we have missed the point of what it will look like.

Which leads us to the most important question of all. Are we, Christians in the United States, really being persecuted? To answer that, we must look to Jesus and those who heard him promise persecution would follow. And, when we do, I get the impression that persecution meant something far different  to them than we, in America, perceive it to be.

So, the problem isn't so much of us putting words in Jesus' mouth--that persecution would come. The problem is that we have lost sight of what Jesus meant when he promised persecution. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say that, for those of us living in the United States, the word 'persecution' seems to have lost almost all meaning. That's not to say there aren't Christians being persecuted here. It certainly does happen! I have even experienced persecution myself--in the form of lost opportunities, broken relationships, and shattered dreams. But then again, I'm not so sure we can label all the opposition we face as persecution. An inconvenience? Yes. But, persecution? Maybe not.

What then, did Jesus mean when he promised persecution. As I've already said, to the first Christians, persecution meant something very different. They didn't define persecution as allowing those with dissenting views the opportunity to express their opinions. Neither did being called a bigot by the political left constitute persecution for them (nor does it for us today considering we have degrading labels for those outside the church). Being thought of as intolerant didn't touch on what it really meant to be persecuted. (On a side note, could it be that people call us intolerant because we are, in fact, intolerant?) Allowing those with different beliefs to have the rights, that should be, afforded all humanity didn't constitute persecution either. Nor did things like having prayer removed from school or the 10 Commandments taken off the walls come across as persecution. Not having social or political control was simply the way of life for the minority Christian in the Roman occupied Jewish territory of Jesus' day. So, I submit to you the persecution we, as Christians, face in this country isn't persecution in the sense those first followers of Jesus thought of persecution.

Rather, the speed-bumps and road-blocks we encounter in every day life are all a part of citizenship in this country we call home. They are just some of the give and take that comes with extending the freedom of religion to everyone. The reason, then, we aren't given preferential treatment has less to do with our faith in Jesus and more to do with the fact that we live in a country that believes "...all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Paul, in Hebrews 11, gives us a great description of the persecution Jesus was alluding to. The persecution those who heard him speak envisioned. "...But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs  were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground." For the original followers of Jesus, this was the ever present reality of life. They understood that persecution would come. They knew that following him would be costly. They realized that, not only would Rome hate and persecute them; but, so would the Jews. If both groups persecuted Jesus, why wouldn't they persecute his followers? Which is why they were told to "count the cost." Because it may very well cost them their life.

And yes, Jesus does give us the same warning today. As a matter of fact, that warning was for everyone who would ever follow him. Since Jesus first drew a crowd, those that followed have been faced with persecution. I just don't think we've quite reached the same level of persecution in the United States. Especially when we look to Christians scattered across the globe today.

To see what real persecution looks like, we need only turn to the LGBT who are denied the legal right to a civil marriage (afforded to them by this country--not the church--which is a different discussion altogether). The Native Americans in our own state who are struggling to find their identity. The African Americans who are still being treated poorly and unfairly in certain parts of this country. The Muslims (or in some instances, non-Muslims of a Middle-Eastern descent) living within these borders who are being called terrorists and/or are beaten to death. Granted, that's not Christian persecution. To see that reality, we have to travel across the ocean. We need to look at volatile places like the Middle East where people are killed because they have claimed Jesus as savior. Or Sudan, China and Korea where Christians live in fear. All because belief in Christianity will deem you apostate resulting in imprisonment, torture and/or death. Sometimes not just you, but your whole family as well.

Perhaps, when we look at others, we will gain a new perspective on what it truly means to be persecuted. Maybe then we will stop labeling the trials we face, in this country, for our beliefs as persecution. Because it's a huge disservice to Christians across the world, facing real persecution. Not to mention how weak and lacking in love it is. It certainly doesn't edify the body of believers. And it certainly doesn't encourage a positive image for those outside the church.

The next time you think you are being persecuted, stop and ask yourself some telling questions. Do you own a Bible? Or two? Or three? When was the last time you were hindered from going to church? (And I'm not talking about getting pulled over for going 5 over the speed limit on your way to church). Is the sign on the building you gather to worship in each and every week visible from the street? Were you ever called a terrorist by a stranger? Have you been denied service at a local business? Has anyone refused to perform your wedding ceremony? Did anyone chain and torture you for uttering the name of Jesus? Were you ever killed for what you believe?




Wednesday, October 1, 2014

STUFF JESUS DIDN'T SAY, Part 2

To tell you the church is pro-life isn't shockingly new information. Had you spent your entire life living in a box (in this country), you would still probably know this to be true. It seems that some religious organization is always battling the government when it comes to this topic. Most recently, the organization to take a pro-life stance and file a lawsuit challenging the federal government was Hobby Lobby. Or perhaps your daily commute takes you by places like Planned Parenthood where protesters hold poster board signs displaying disturbing images of aborted babies. Of course, you are reminded of this every election when one of the candidates jabs the other for their stand for or against the pro-life movement.

Why has the church taken this stance? Because, as Jesus' followers, we have read Scripture and, somehow, discerned him saying "I am pro-life." While this is true--Jesus is very pro-life--we seemed to have added a caveat, "...but only when it comes to babies."

How do I know this? Partly due to the fact that I've been involved in the church for the past 25 years of my life. Given that length of time, I think it's safe to say the impression I get--that death, sometimes, is perfectly acceptable--has at least some validity. I've heard enough sermons based on the Old Testament passage of "an eye for an eye," to justify their stance on topics like capital punishment and war. I've sat in board meetings where decisions were made to ban people from serving in or even attending the church because of their criminal background. But these aren't the only reasons I know this to be so.

Just a couple weeks ago, every local media outlet informed the Sioux Empire that a death row inmate had committed suicide. He was found dead, in his cell, overnight. Although the penitentiary staff tried to revive him, their efforts were unsuccessful.

For a day or two, the talk of the town seemed to revolve around his apparent suicide. Everyone had their two cents to add to the discussion. Customers came into the office informing me that justice had finally been served and the victim's family would get the closure they had been waiting for. Comments on various news source articles ranged from "he took the easy way out," to "hell has a special place reserved for him." Others gave a sigh of relief because, according to them, "he would no longer be a drain on tax payer dollars." The discussion even spilled over to social media--no surprise there. I read numerous twitter updates (and I don't even have twitter). And my feed on Facebook was hijacked with friends sharing the articles and posting their opinions on the entire situation.

Given his long criminal record and the nature of his crimes, these comments aren't that big of a shock to me. He had, afterall, killed another human being--an elderly woman, whose vehicle he stole in order to drive to the capitol and assassinate the president.

I'd be lying if I said those same sentiments didn't cross my mind at first. Truth be told, I have spent far too much of my life making similar remarks. Rejoicing when enemies of America are killed. Breathing a sigh of relief when another murderer breathes his last breath. All because I am an individual who highly values justice. Like most of you (I assume), there is something deep within me that finds solace when people get what they deserve--unless it's me of course. So, you see, I, too, had bought into the lie that Jesus is pro-life, but only for babies. All of that was to, hopefully, get you to see that I'm  not here to cast judgment; because that's the last thing on my mind. However, this whole situation raised some important questions for me.

For starters, all of this makes me wonder if we, the church, are truly pro-life. You see, we have certainly created a culture in the church that is pro-birth, but it seems to fall short of being pro-life. And there is a vast difference. To mourn the loss of one life and celebrate the death of another strikes me as inconsistent, at the very least. This is not what I see when I look to Jesus. I don't recall a single occasion in which Jesus celebrated the death of another human being, even a convicted criminal. He never seemed to condone the concept of casualties of war--indicating that their death was necessary for the greater good. Which brings me to the topic of justice. Namely, are death and justice synonymous? Ever?

It seems to me, here is another example where Christian beliefs have been hijacked by the political right. Where the lines between faith and politics have been blurred. Where we have taken the easy road and failed to holistically approach this idea of pro-life. Because, while Jesus seems to be pro-life, I get the impression it's much more than a stance against abortion.

So, what needs to change about our, the church's, understanding of being pro-life?

To begin with, just as Jesus affirms ALL life, so must we!

If we believe what the book of Genesis tells us about humanity, we have no choice but to believe that all of us were created in the image of God. Male. Female. Gentile. Jew. Muslim. Rich. Poor. Law-abiding citizen. Convicted criminal. While the sin living in each of us tarnishes that image; it doesn't negate the fact that somewhere, somehow, all of us speak to the grandeur of God. That if we look close enough, we are still able to see his imprint on our lives, no matter what state it's in. This is why death, in any form is wrong. Period. Abortion. Euthanasia. Casualties of war. Capital punishment. Not only do they all go against everything Jesus talked about concerning life--which, it seems to me, he talked about an awful lot. But they also suppress the very image of God that resides within each of us. To celebrate their death makes us not only less human, but less like God.

For this reason, according to Shane Claiborne, "We need to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb." And "...to talk about being pro-life," says Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago,  "it has to be a seamless statement of life that reaches all the way from abortion to war to caring for the poor." Obviously, these two gentlemen are more in tune with what it means to be a pro-life follower of Jesus. Which leads me to believe that, we, the church, need to revoke the lines we have drawn. That value the life of the unborn over the born. That view foreign life as less significant. That prefer legal justice over divine justice.

Which brings us to justice. Because that's what we're really talking about, isn't it? When death is and isn't just. But this approach fails to take into account everything Jesus taught us about mercy, forgiveness and loving your enemy.  

Demonstrating his Mercy, Jesus lamented "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me." (Luke 13:34). And this deep seeded desire to extend compassion to Jerusalem, was only the beginning. Even though Jerusalem wouldn't let him offer the help (and hope) they desperately needed, Jesus still laid down his life for them.

Speaking on forgiveness Jesus tells Peter (and us), to forgive "...not seven times, but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:22). Scholars all agree Jesus isn't talking about a literal 490 times. The point Jesus seems to be making is that, as his followers, we should actually follow his example. That example is to not keep score. Not in the church. Not in our relationships. And not even with those who commit atrocious crimes.

Giving us examples on what it looks like to truly love, Jesus says "You have heard the law that says, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike." (Matthew 5:43-45). And, just in case this one wasn't clear enough, he offers other examples, just in like: "turn the other cheek," "if a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles," or "if you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too."

So, you see, this Old Testament attitude of "an eye for an eye" will not do anymore. Gandhi seemed to recognize this truth so easily, admonishing us that ,"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." This is not justice. At least, not according to Jesus. Perhaps it's time we read the Bible, not through the lens of retributive justice, but restorative. Because when we understand justice from this perspective, it takes on a much different meaning. I assert that, to Jesus, justice speaks of our failure to embody God's concern for the well-being of all people. Justice requires that we turn back to God and away from the injustices society finds acceptable--that favor the wealthy, powerful over the vulnerable, poor. Jesus' call to justice is not for judgment, but the way to overcome it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

STUFF JESUS DIDN'T SAY, Part 1

Growing up, church was a vital part of my family's life. If the doors were open, we were there. Every Sunday morning my mother would drag my brother's and I to church. I quickly learned that she would not tolerate us being a distraction to her or anyone else sitting within ear shot. That meant we had two options: we could either sit still in the uncomfortable wooden pew (which the church still has to this day) and listen to the sermon; or let our father deal with us when we got home. Recognizing that fighting was futile, unlike my brothers, I accepted my lot and chose the former. Needless to say, at a young age, I was engaging with the sermon every Sunday morning. I would take notes and mark various things in my Bible. At home, I would look up each and every verse--obviously, to make sure the pastor wasn't preaching heresy. Yes, I'm kind of nerdy; but that's nothing new. In Sunday School, I was the annoying kid with all the answers. Every summer I went to camp and lead my team to victory with the most points for Scripture memorization. I was a leader in our youth group and even had opportunities to present the lesson on Wednesday nights. I've read the Bible from cover to cover a handful of times. Most of my college electives were filled with Bible classes from The Old Testament to The Letters of Paul and everything between. I'm even known to listen to sermons while I work.

Having this insight, you would think I rarely walk out of a church service confused. But I do! It's not that the teaching is too theological--if you'd like to talk, I can explain the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor do I find the messages to be too removed from every day life. Truth be told, the church seems to have come a long way in making the Bible not only understandable, but relate-able. What, then, leaves me perplexed?

Jesus. But not Jesus himself. It's the way we have portrayed Jesus in the Church. This is nothing new. It's obvious the world thinks we are a bunch of hypocrites, but that's another discussion entirely. You see, sometimes, those of us in the church have a way of making Jesus a bit more palatable. A little less offensive. We find our way around his more difficult and politically incorrect thoughts on life. We dismiss it as a metaphor. And, just like the expert in the law, referenced in The Parable of the Good Samaritan, we will look for a loophole--"who is my neighbor?". And sometimes we are guilty of putting words in Jesus' mouth. Words he never said. Words he never alluded to. Words that can't even be found by reading between the lines. It seems that many of us have mastered the art of Biblical Twister--using Scripture, out of context, to support our own take on what we think Jesus really meant to say.

In case you need a little convincing, I've put together a few popular sayings that have (at one time or another) been attributed to Jesus (or the Bible). "God helps those who help themselves." Where can you find this one in the Bible? Trick question. You can't find it because it's not there. Or how about "God won't give you more than you can handle." Nothing like this crossed the lips of Jesus according to Scripture. And while I tend to agree that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Jesus doesn't come close to teaching anything of the sort.

Which is why I have chosen to start this series of posts. To set the record straight on some things we, the Church, might have you believing Jesus actually said.

"Establish a church, purchase a building, and gather together with like minded individuals."       -Jesus

In case I've already lost or confused you, Jesus never said that. From my estimation, he never encouraged his followers to set up a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. Nor did he encourage any of them to purchase a building in order that they can hold weekly worship services. And oddly enough, Jesus never really mentioned that his purpose was to create a community of like minded people.

Perhaps you disagree. You might be inclined to think that Jesus came to do away with the religious system and start a new church. But, you'd be wrong. Jesus clearly points out that he didn't come to abolish the current system, just to set it straight. Maybe you question how the church could gather together in the thousands to hear the apostles preach without their own building. You could point to the fact that the meeting place of a large church in Jerusalem was the temple (Acts 2:46). The fact remains, these instances were the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, that is the only reference to Christians meeting in the temple after Pentecost. Or maybe, after reading the biography of Jesus' life, you have concluded that he drew crowds of the like minded. While that was certainly the case to an extent, I hardly think that was his purpose. And the record clearly shows, those who were drawn to Jesus came from all walks of life.

Now that we've cleared that up, let me start off by saying that I don't find anything wrong with establishing a church. Partaking in the worship and community most churches offer is a vital aspect to the Christian life. Neither do I believe churches that purchase buildings are inherently evil. There is no doubt in my mind that property ownership can be a fiscally responsible thing--and Jesus does admonish us to be good stewards. And I can attest to the fact that when the church is unified and acts like the church, there is no entity on earth that can bring about greater good. When put into the proper perspective, churches, buildings and unity are useful tools. They are the means by which we are able to establish the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

But, I can't get around the blaring truth that Jesus didn't tell us to create a tax exempt institution. Yet, from the founding of this country, the church has had a contractual agreement with the government granting them exemption from taxes. All under the premise of keeping the church and the state separate. Today, a vast majority of churches operate under the umbrella of a 501(c)(3) organization. While it seems this is a great benefit to the church, the reality may be quite different. Being extended tax-exempt status by the government requires an organization to jump through certain hoops, so to speak. There are rules and requirements that must be adhered to in order to maintain the right to claim exemption. One such requirement is that any 501(c)(3) entity must not be an action organization--in other words, they shouldn't attempt to influence legislation, nor are they allowed to participate in any campaign activities. Lately, this has been more than evident with the volatile political debates taking place on marriage, health care reform, abortion, immigration law, and our involvement in the war overseas (just to name a few). For the church to uphold this contract with the government requires nothing short of silence regarding all of these issues (and more). Unfortunately, it's tough to be a light in the darkness by remaining distant and silent on topics such as these. Which is why I have to agree with Mike Huckabee that, "It's time for churches to reject tax exempt status completely; freedom is more important than government financial favors." Whether we believe it or not, it is our responsibility to stand on the truth of Jesus Christ and affect change in our world. And sometimes that means we need to get involved in the political arena. But it's tough to do so when we are dependent on handouts from the government for remaining silent.

As far as property ownership goes, Jesus never said it was necessary to spread the Good News., like some churches would have you believe. And to be honest, we read very little about the church, as a centralized institution, owning property. There were indications that, in Rome, early Christians met in various public places such as warehouses or apartment buildings. But, for the most part, the church was dependent on members who owned property to provide places for their gatherings--i.e. the house of Mary, the house of Lydia, the house of Justus--I think you get the picture. The New Testament church also reveals that property and possessions belonged to individuals (not the church), but were sold in order that the church could provide for those in need (Acts 2:45)--something the church seems to have lost sight of today. It seems to me, a vast majority of church budgets is being directed toward property ownership and upkeep. I've seen some incredible, state-of-the-art, church facilities. And it's no secret, religious institutions own a lot of real estate. In the United States alone, the estimated value of un-taxed church property lands somewhere between $300 and $500 billion. I can't even wrap my head around that much money. If only some of that were redirected I can't help but think it would go a long way in providing basic necessities for so many in our world that go without. Sadly, many churches have the propensity to equate their success with the former as opposed to the latter. Perhaps this is why Jesus and the early apostles seemed so unconcerned with creating extravagant worship centers. To focus on a building seems counter-intuitive to what they were trying to do. Not only does it perpetuate the idea that this building is where ministry happens--which is a hard theology to teach considering "the Son of Man had no place to lay his head." But it also fuels the competitive spirit of comparison and has a tendency to lead to a church where comfort and complacency reign supreme.

Last, but certainly not least, I don't really recall Jesus requiring everyone who followed him to think exactly like he did. Have you read through the Gospels? Do you recall how many times the disciples--Jesus' closest followers--completely missed the boat on what he was doing? James and John were known as "The Sons of Thunder" for wanting to strike down everyone who got in their way with lightning from heaven. Peter denies Jesus three times in one night. The sight of the resurrected Christ wasn't enough proof for Thomas; he had to feel the actual wounds. And I can't even begin to tell you how many times Jesus chastised all of them for their lack of faith. Yet, in spite of all their shortcomings, he didn't reject them. He never turned any of them away because they didn't uphold a certain standard. To my knowledge, they never went through any sort of ceremonial initiation to join his crew. I'm certain he didn't ask them to sign a membership agreement. It's unfortunate that many of us have taken the exact opposite approach when it comes to joining the church. Instead of Jesus' "follow me" mentality, numerous churches seem to have an "agree to this" approach. The "my way or the highway" attitude. You're in or you're out. We have mistakenly majored on the minors. Unfortunately its doctrine--not dogma--that is dictating what it means to follow Jesus. And that very doctrine is alienating those who most desperately need what Jesus and the church have to offer. In the words of one of my college professors, "We have made it more difficult to join the church than God made it to get into Heaven."

What a sad state we find ourselves in partnering with the government for financial gain; all the while remaining distant and silent from the atrocities we are called to address. In promoting the church at the expense of the kingdom; under the premise that it equips us to serve the community better. In valuing conformity at the expense of unity; thinking we are weeding out the heretical. But it makes me wonder. Have we missed Jesus' most important mandate--to go? Would he have something to say about the state of the church and our current understanding. Or, better yet, would our churches even welcome Jesus into their body with open arms?





Friday, May 16, 2014

TO THE DYING CHURCH: OFFER US THE HOPE YOU ONCE DID

My Dear Friend,

It breaks my heart to be the one to tell you this. But I figured you might be more receptive hearing this from me. I think you already know what I'm about to tell you--it's nearly impossible you couldn't with how loud everyone's whispers have become.

Something is terribly wrong! You are sick.

I know this isn't the news you were hoping for, but it's the truth. With this in mind, I feel now, it is more important than ever that I lay things out for you--no matter how much it pains me. I will no longer stand by and watch you suffer. I will not allow you to continue living in denial, hoping everything will fix itself. What you are facing is very real. It requires much more than the superficial bandages you are currently using. And no matter how much you believe you are in better shape than everyone else, pointing out their weakness will not bring you healing. 

Now that the tough part is out of the way, I want you to know there is hope. You can pull through this. You can get better--even better than you were before the diagnosis. But it is going to require you to make some drastic changes. Nothing short of your own blood, sweat and tears will reverse this tragic disease.

For starters, you can no longer reject the input of everyone around you. Even when you don't like what they have to say. You must stop "[following your] own desires and [looking] for teachers who will tell [you] whatever [your] itching ears want to hear." By doing this, you have driven a wedge between you and those who love you dearly. I don't understand how you could turn your back on them--the very people who have stood by your side all these years. And then to condemn them and cast them aside for offering help? It's not making things better. You have to stop isolating yourself from everyone just because you disagree. I know that criticism is hard. I realize everyone doesn't hold the same world-view as you. But that doesn't mean they are inferior to you. Nor does it give you the right to simply write them off. Believe it or not, there is a lot you can learn from your critics. If only you would learn to take the good with the bad. To see things from their perspective. You just might be able to gleam some invaluable insight about your condition.

Furthermore, it is time you get past all this negativity. Everything isn't all bad, is it? Can you not find a single ounce of good in anything? I think it is time you admonish the words of our dear brother Paul. "Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise." Surely you can find these things, even in the darkest places. Is God not at work there? Didn't he create all that we see? If he did, certainly you can find the good he once saw. Perhaps it's time you just look a little harder, that you may find the work God has started and partner with him in redemption. 

In addition to that, you must learn to stop with all this hatred. You may think you are taking a Biblical stand. You might even be right about some of this. But why do you always feel the need to prove your knowledge? It only comes across as bigotry and ignorance. I know the world is full of "bad" people. Don't forget that you, yourself were once just like them--on the receiving end of the hatred you now spew. Singling them out and condemning them isn't helping; it's only making things worse. All this hatred is driving away those you, at one point, so desperately wanted to offer hope. When will you realize that hatred only begets hatred? In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." So, if you think the world is such a dark place, perhaps the problem doesn't lie with the world...perhaps it's because you have stopped shining the light. Of all people, you should know "it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."

A professor once told me "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." There is a lot of wisdom to this statement. Until you learn, like Jesus, to put yourself in their shoes, they won't listen to a word you have to say. Wasn't it his practice to "[not] be selfish," and "[not] impress others." but to "Be humble, thinking of others as better than [himself]. [Not to] look out only for [his] own interests, but to take an interest in others, too." Isn't that what drew you to him? How quickly have you forgotten the example he set for you? If you want to be well like you once were, look to Jesus. Imitate him. The man who offered his life for a traitor race. The one who bled only love and forgiveness for us all.

Which brings me to my last point. Over the years I have noticed a change in the way you talk. And it's not just the negativity. It's even the way you share your story. To be quite honest, it's downright depressing. I don't find much hope in your words anymore. From my estimation, in order to attract the masses, your message has become reminiscent of the numerous self-help books that fill the used bookstore down the street from my work. Five easy steps for a better marriage. Three ways to financial freedom. How to boost your self-esteem. Seven habits of successful leaders. I know these are problems facing the world today, but your message used to be so much more life-giving than all of that. Your words used to inspire me to be a better person, to make the world a better place, to love not just my neighbor, but even my enemies. Lately it seems like all you talk about is how Jesus came to die for your sins. Not that this isn't true. He did, in fact die for your sins. Willingly, might I add. In obedience to the Father. But somehow you seemed to forget the broader truth. Not only did Jesus die for your sins, but for the sins of your agnostic neighbor. And the sins of the drunk, abusive father down the street. And the sins of the inmate on death row. Until you turn from this narrow-minded, self-centered message and make this about the community and restoration, your health will continue to decline. And the more you promote yourself and build your kingdom, the quicker your demise will come.

Offer us the hope you once did. Spur us on to be a beacon of hope, love and compassion. Share again of what God will do through us, for the world. Challenge us to wash the feet of those who will betray us. Remind us how it all ends..."After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'" Do this, and surely you will be on the road to recovery.

I know there is so much of this I still need to work on myself. Perhaps we can do this together. Until you're ready, know that I pray for you everyday. Hoping that one day you will quit pushing away and shutting out those of us who love you. That you will listen and accept the help we desperately want to give you. I know the healing process will be difficult. It will require you to, in humility, acknowledge you were wrong. To recognize that you alone don't have all the answers. Although it will be painful in the beginning, it will eventually lend itself to healing. This is the only way for you to survive this ordeal and be whole again. I hope you will heed the words of this letter. I would, once again, like to see you in all your grandeur. Regardless of the outcome, know that I will always be grateful for the love we once shared. It has made me who am I today.

With all my love,

Jordan