Monthly Archives: July 2009

What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

Well, the much anticipated meeting between the President, Dr. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley is over. We saw images of the three men along with Vice-President Biden carrying on like chummy pals, and so the question remains: now what? I think President Obama was right to downplay the importance of the so-called “beer summit”. After all, it was more a recovery effort of Mr. Obama’s after he interjected himself into the story with his remarks that the Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

First, a word about the President’s comments. I don’t completely fault him for what he said. We tend to over-scrutinize every word a president says as if his every utterance has been planned and rehearsed and therefore infallible. Obama was responding to an off-the-cuff question with a very off-the-cuff answer. Granted, it wasn’t a very helpful answer. He pitched unfair aspersions upon the arresting officer which he would days later “recalibrate.” But be that as it may, he also answered as an African-American, obviously seeing things through a long lens of racial history in America. It’s very much understandable and forgivable, yes. But perhaps Obama now knows a bit more keenly that as President of the United States, he carries a most certain gravitas, especially as an African American president speaking on issues of race.

Now I realize that what I say here comes from my worldview as a white guy. At the same time, I have dear friends from many different races and proudly pastor a multicultural, multiracial congregation. I’ve learned from my experiences that people from different races and cultures view the world from a wide range of varying angles. Who’s to say which angle is the most accurate?

Just to give you an example, the day after the Gates arrest and the President’s ensuing commentary on it, I called one of my African American friends to ask him what he thought of all this. His first words were, “Oh man… You’d have to ask that question!” Obviously, the incident stirred up a lot within him.

I was amazed and dismayed– and maybe I shouldn’t have been– to find him questioning not Gates’ behavior nor the President’s remarks but the police officer. His gut told him, “This was racial profiling.”

Then I quoted the police report which detailed Gates’ outlandish behavior and the reasons for his arrest.

My friend held the report in suspicion.

Then I said, “But Crowley has an exemplary record as a veteran police officer. He’s even taught racial sensitivity courses. He has no record of racism in his past.”

To that, my friend replied, “But past behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of future behavior.”

Then I blurted out, “What?? So you’re saying the officer is guilty simply because the charge of racism has been made?? So the charge is greater than any other evidence??”

I have to admit that beyond that I can’t remember the details from the rest of our conversation. My friend may have had some other good things to say, but my mind shut down after that. We talked some more and agreed to keep watching to see what would happen. By the way, my friend and I rarely agree on much of anything, however we really respect and learn from each other.

Afterwards, a day or so before the White House beer summit, my friend and I talked again. We saw things a little differently than before. While we still didn’t agree on who was to blame for the incident, we both did see that there was some overreacting from both Gates and Crowley. In other words, it was a momentary mistake of judgment. I would add that the President also committed a momentary mistake of judgment by the tone of his remarks.

So is that all it was? Was there no racism involved?

After thinking about things, I’m going to throw this idea out there: There was no racism inherent in anyone’s motives or actions. But racism, like a demonic force, stepped in as an outside intruder to make this incident into yet another firestorm to throw our country into a debate on racism that quite honestly will never be resolved.

So was there any healing balm to be found in the White House beer summit? Perhaps. It was a nice symbolic gesture. Frankly, that’s all it was. Both Gates and Crowley walked away still not agreeing on who was right and wrong. But they both seemed to walk away with a greater respect for the two different worlds in which they live and work. They both want to “move on.”

And that’s probably the best thing for them and for us, too. My African American friend and I drew the same conclusion.

Of course, there is no denying what an incredibly ugly, horrific scar the history of racism has left on America. From the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies to racial segregation and inequalities to the systemic and personal incarnations of racism we find today, that scar still lives and breathes. I truly believe that over time, the scar will will continue to weaken and fade. But I do not think that we will ever find any great coming-to-terms on the debate surrounding racism, i.e. who’s to blame and what are we to do about it.

The debate on racism is what fueled last week’s events, not racism itself.

There is no victor rising from the debate on racism, only casualties. Americans of European and African descent do not see issues of race in the same way, nor may they ever. Thankfully, it’s not necessary for us to agree in order to create racial harmony in the United States or anywhere else in the world. What we do need, however, is mutual respect for the integrity of differeing views. With my African American friend, I can learn to appreciate how and why he sees things as he does, even if I don’t view things the same way, and vice versa.

So, instead of debate, let’s dialogue. Dialogue builds bridges into community with one another. Dialogue might possibly bring new, creative solutions to the lingering issues of racism that the tired out debates could never deliver.

Finally, I’d like to offer a sure, absolute cure to the issues of race, this one from the gospel of Jesus Christ:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-29, NTL)

If only we would all see, especially those of us who call ourselves Christian,  that God’s promise of Jesus Christ is our healing, our unity, and our life, we would have all the unity we need. And there would be no more need for symbolic beer summits.

Cheers!

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More Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers: The Dying Prayer of Polycarp

PolycarpI’m still reading through some of the writings from our early Church Fathers, the ones known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who wrote before the Nicene Council of 324 AD.) To make a long story short, these writers were among the second generation of the Church, mentored by Apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. They provide a rare glimpse of what church life was like in the years immediately after the biblical records. They also show the tremendous perils the early Church faced, everything from dangerously divisive heresies to life-threatening persecution.

Polycarp, mentored by the Apostle John, was the leader of the church in Smyrna, a town located in modern day Turkey. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities, and after his death, Polycarp became a widely celebrated hero of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. We still have some of his writings and the detailed description of his arrest and death called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”

Persecution and execution of Christians during this period of time was no rarity. The Roman Empire regarded Christians as “atheists” and “heretics”, atheists because they did not worship Roman idols and heretics for not acknowledging Caesar as a god. Christians were rounded up, coerced, tortured, and threatened with death to offer incense to idols and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” In response, most of these Christians refused and replied, “Christ is Lord.”

In the famous “Martyrdom of Polycarp” we have a story told by eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Polycarp’s arrest, trial, and death. There are a lot of obvious allusions to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, specifically Polycarp riding into Smyrna on a donkey, his silence before the questions and accusations hurled against him by the governor of the city, and the roar of the crowd demanding his death. One memorable scene occurs in Chapter 9 when the Governor of Smyrna demanded Polycarp to denounce his faith:

The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him. “Revile your Christ.” Polycarp’s reply was, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

But my favorite, most moving scene from the entire account is Polycarp’s final prayer before the Roman authorities attempted to burn him alive. (I say “attempted” for a reason. You’ll have to read the account for yourself to find out what happened!) Here is what he prayed, rendered into current English:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of yourself; you are the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all generations of the righteous who live in your sight. I bless you for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share in the cup of your Anointed and to rise again to everlasting life, both in body and in soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as you appoint and foreshadow, and now bring to pass, for you are the God of truth in whom there is no falsehood. For this, and for all else, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you; through our eternal High Priest in heaven, your beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen.

If only you and I could faithfully pray with such passion and love! So often, though, our comfortable existence reduces our prayers to formalities and formulas. Maybe if were more like Polycarp and stood a little taller and bolder for Christ, we might be forced into learning how to pray something like this. And then we’d rediscover just how much God honors the prayers of the saints to reveal the fullness of God’s glory and power.

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Everyday Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers

IgnatiusHave you ever noticed that in the large, lucrative frenzy of Christian media, we rarely if ever hear from ancient Christian voices? Yes, we read biblical texts from the Apostle Paul, John, Peter, James, and the gospel writers. But what about the writings of those whom they mentored– the writings of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Century Christians? For the most part, they’ve been lost into obscurity, tucked away on the bookshelves of seminaries and church history professors. Meanwhile, everyday Christians never get to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration that comes from the writings of our ancient Church Fathers. Foundational Church leaders like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Augustine, and many others have such wisdom and inspiration to share with us 21st Century disciples of Jesus, but so few of us ever get to hear from them.

So what awakened me to give them a second read?

I recently alluded to them in a sermon illustration by saying that we Christians often look to the saints of the past for direction and encouragement in the present. I then rattled off names of several prominent Christian saints, realizing right then that most of my congregation may never have heard a word from any of them or have easy access to their writings. To them, people like Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Francis of Assisi are just names and faces. What’s to learn from that?

Sensing a desire for their wisdom and inspiration, I felt drawn to hear from these saints again. Ministry can get downright draining and frustrating. Ancient brothers like Clement or Ignatius just might have something to say to me in my day to day struggles. I had studied a sampling of their writings while taking seminary church history courses, but since then, I haven’t  read those books again to read them just for myself, for my own benefit.

So today I dug up one of my seminary books: the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings. Not too long ago I finished reading Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Clement was the presiding elder (traditionally “bishop”) of the church in Rome, writing out of concern for the divisions and factions he had heard about in the Corinthian church. Apparently, some folks were trying to uproot and replace the leadership of their church. Clement wrote his letter to encourage humility, repentance, love, cooperation, and a respect for the authority which Paul himself probably appointed. His writings were laced with Old Testament scripture and allusions to numerous New Testament scriptures. Clement even referenced Paul’s first letter to them, what we now call First Corinthians, which had already become a widely circulated letter among the early church. (I thought that was way cool!) All in all, Clement was passionate, unquestionably thorough, sometimes less than perfect, but authentically sincere in encouraging this sister church of his to seek out Christ’s healing and reconciliation.

Here’s a sample from Clement’s letter:

If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? It’s majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no ends to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave blood for us– His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 49)

Did you hear echoes from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter”? That was intentional on Clement’s part. He pulled his Corinthian listeners back to those all-too-familiar words of Paul in order to address their present crisis. There’s also an allusion to 1 Peter 4:8.

Clement’s entire letter reads like this. It was really a joy to wipe the dust off this book and give it a fresh read. I can’t wait to dig into the letters of Ignatious and Polycarp, too!

One more thought: as I was reading, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be for an influential Christian publisher like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson to re-translate and publish these ancient Christian writings into a book for contemporary Christians. It might create a new surge of interest in the early Church Fathers who would provide far more biblically based wisdom and inspiration than much of the popular tripe that passes for Christian teaching these days. Otherwise, these ancient writers will only stay buried on academic bookshelves while we miss the priceless treasure they offer us.

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Overcoming our Churchiness

Setting out to blog today, I suppose this one could be classified as a rant. I’m not sure what will follow these openning sentences because I’m airing out some personal frustrations while earnestly attempting to keep my thoughts constructive. At the same time, I remember the words God used to commission the prophet Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you… to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Not that I’m Jeremiah– and Lord, I hope to never be!!— but the point is plain enough. Sometimes you’ve got to tear things down and rip them apart in order to plant new life.

I’ve always lived with a tolerable level of frustration with the state of the church, such as it is. It’s like living with achy knees (which I do, by the way). You simply learn to live with it, work through it, and perhaps use the annoyance to spur on some kind of greater good. (In my case, achy knees constantly remind me to lose weight and keep my leg muscles in shape.) There are certain churchy mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities which I live and work in everyday. Sometimes I even catch myself falling back into them. As a spiritual leader, much of my job is reforming the church away from these inhibiting qualities which have led us into serious decline, and shepherd us towards more authentic, Christ-centered, biblical mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities. Sometimes it feels like pushing Mt. Everest. Other times, it’s rapturous to see how easily many of us “get it.”

But I recently had something happen which ratcheted up the normal tolerable level of frustration to jabbing pains. When that happens, I rant.

Two Sundays ago at our Vacation Bible School celebration, we used some technology normally not utilized in worship. Our VBS leaders used PowerPoint digital projection to display the words of the VBS songs we sang all week. I’ve been a longtime proponent of our church installing digital projection into our sanctuary, for reasons I’ll unpack a little later. So, knowing there would be digital projection during our worship services that Sunday, I asked the leadership team if I could create and include a PowerPoint presentation of my sermon. There was method to my madness; if folks could see the full potential of digital projection, they just might want more of it. And yes, people loved it!

Yesterday, I followed suit. During my sermon, I used PowerPoint again. I wanted people to be able tune in more and see what they were hearing. I projected my major points, some Scriptures, and some images of things I was describing. Despite a few minor technical glitches that need working out, it was a success. I saw people paying more attention and taking notes. Better yet, I saw younger people with their heads up and eyes facing forward.

“Why PowerPoint and digital projection?” you may ask. We’re in a postmodern world. In our postmodern world, most people are visual learners. Immersed in an image-rich world of computers, TVs, vivid advertising, smart phones, and gaming, many of us connect and learn from others through our eyes. Arguably, so much visual living has diminished our capacity to learn and connect by using our ears. Nevertheless, more of us function and absorb information in visual formats.

Most traditional churches, on the other hand, still operate in the older “modern” world of auditory learning and communicating. We come to these churches and must hear the announcements, hear the music, and exclusively listen to a 20+ minute sermon. That asks postmodern visual learners to carefully focus on the primary medium of sound in order to receive the Word of God. No wonder I see many people with blank expressions on their faces or fidgeting doing other things while trying to “listen” to a sermon. In settings like these, I could be the most charismatic and profound preacher and still see people tuning out.

So, I began some much-needed, corrective steps last week and yesterday. A lot of people saw it as a welcome change. They commented how much easier it was for them to pay attention and walk away with more from the message. As a preacher, I was able to share more detailed, substantive information knowing that people would be able to see and follow along with my points. They could visualize how all these points come together into one whole. They could see the ideas I shared. In other words, it was much harder to get lost in information overload because I gave them a multi-sensory message from God’s Word.

But here’s what got my goat: the unhelpful negative comments from some well-intentioned church people. While I keep myself open to listen and learn to anyone, here’s what some people said:

“It’s just a gimmick.”

“I feel like I’m in a classroom, not church.”

“This is a dumbing down of worship.”

“This stuff doesn’t belong in our historic, sacred sanctuary.”

“You may be trying to get younger people, but going to chase away us older people with that kind of thing.”

I even had one person tell me that as long as I use digital projection, they would not come to our worship services!

Franky, it astonishes me how easily the church’s churchiness gets in the way of making new disciples of Jesus Christ. The use of technology is no gimmick. It’s not “church-lite”. I’m trying to stay in step with people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul who knew how to communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that people can both understand and retain. My interest in using technology in worship is not an ends in itself. I want to share the Word of God and form followers of Jesus, and I’ll use whatever means necessary to do it.

lost-sheepIn this discussion or in any other concerning the church’s ministry, there are two hallmark questions we church people must ask ourselves:

1) To what lengths are we willing to go to make new disciples of Christ?

2) How willing are we to sacrifice our own sensibilities and wants in order to reach new, younger people for Jesus?

Asking these questions illuminates one of the major barriers we face in making new disciples of Jesus. That barrier is none other than the churchiness of the church. What is churchiness? It’s the inflexibility of a “me first” approach to ministry. It’s the attitude that worship and ministry revolve around the wants and desires of church members rather than the vast neediness of a lost world. It’s the arrogance of assuming that the world must conform to our church culture in order to have a chance at being disciples of Jesus. To put it another way, it’s when the church thinks of itself more as a club who tends to the wants of its club members and less as a missional people of God who will stop at nothing to bring their world to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Whew… I got all of that off my chest. The rant is over.

But in all seriousness, I love the church I serve and the community I live in far, far too much to allow anything or anyone, myself included, to be a stumbling block to people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I also know I need to keep my own churchiness in check, too. I have a lot to learn in order to become a more missional and mission-leading pastor. Some of that means learning to take hits from folks who resist needed change to the church. But, I’m confident we’ll get there and that God is able to use us, even in spite of ourselves. After all, God will not rest until each lost child of God’s discovers how Jesus Christ died and was risen for them. I just pray my church and I can keep up!

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The Power and Passion of Simplicity

The more complex and scatterbrained our world gets, the more frequently I hear people voicing the need for simplicity. Simple offers a solace that resonates throughout the most iconic symbols of our day. For example, Macintosh found new life as a formidable challenge to the once-thought impervious Microsoft by offering a whole line of “simple” computers and MP3 players like the one button iPOD. The haircuts and fashions of our decade are more plain and simple (as opposed to the flashy, poofy styles of the 80’s.) Wal-Mart, capitalizing on our American love for bargains, has dominated the retail world with a rebirth of the general store, their simple one-stop shop appeal and their “Save money. Live better.” slogan. Even in a surging health craze, McDonalds thrives by their simple value meals and $1 menu. (By the way, each of these three companies has done more than survive in the current recession!)

simplicity + focused excellence = a new birth of passion and power

I’ve been reminded of this principle twice now in the last two weeks.

This past Christmas, my in-laws gave me a little known instrument called the Xaphoon. (My spell-checker doesn’t even like this word.) At first glance, the Xaphoon rarely makes a strong first impression. It’s a simple one-piece bamboo stick with burned in finger holes. But the difference lies in the mouthpiece. It is meticulously carved and sanded to hold a tenor sax reed and ligature. And the combination of that tenor sax reed with the warm resonance of bamboo offers an instrument with a complete 2-octave chromatic range capable of jazz, middle-eastern, Celtic, Gospel, or any other style of music one can imagine. The Xaphoon’s lilty, esoteric tone sounds oddly similar to a clarinet, soprano sax, or even an alto sax, depending on how it’s played.

The simplicity and soul-grabbing sway of this little instrument has created an indelible mark on me as a musician. How can this unpretentious instrument wield such an enormous diversity of musical voicing? The answer lies in two places: its careful craftsmanship and the humble demands it makes upon its player to focus upon drawing out its most expressive potential.

Then this morning, I heard U2‘s new song “Magnificent.” I was drawn into it almost right away and began to wonder, “How and why does this song live up to its title??” On a surface appraisal, “Magnificent” is four or five chords continuously repeated with a handful of phrases for lyrics. But as always Bono‘s words are carefully chosen, balanced, and deeply personal thoughts that resonate universal themes of love, worship, relationships, healing, and life. Musically, The Edge accomplishes his usual masterful blends of stirring guitar arpeggios and tastefully layered keyboards. When Adam Clayon and Larry Mullen add their reliably standard drive of bass and rhythm, the total result is that unmistakable, virtually unchanged U2 sound that fills stadiums with fans no matter where they go.

How has U2 pulled off their enormous popularity and riveting sound for well over two decades? The answer, much like the story of the Xaphoon, is in combining painstaking excellence, sincerity, and authenticity into an uncomplicated form. This unleashes an unlimited freedom of expression, passion, and power. If there was ever any hope of Rock n’ Roll changing and uniting the world, U2 would be the only act to ever accomplish it.

simplicity + focused excellence = a continual surge of passion and power

As for me, I’m looking to redefine my life, ministry, and church with this same principle. You and I make life and faith far more complex and busy-bodied than it has to be. It’s simple to understand. When we take the energy and opportunity God has given us and disperse it among lots of things, the result is a lot of things done cheaply. But when we channel that same wellspring of energy and passion into no more than a few things with lots of excellence, the world benefits from an undeniably divine power and passion.

Take another look at Jesus- a poor, Jewish rabbi from Palestine. How did his short span of life on our planet forever alter the shape and direction of humankind? It’s simple. He surrendered himself to do one thing only:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself: he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19

In other words, he gave his all to mirror God the Father, and so though Jesus, God poured out the totality of his love, power, and authority. From himself, Jesus gave away this same kind of obedience to his disciples, who in turn have discipled others.

simple obedience + focused excellence = the outpouring of God through one human being creating a global movement

So, I only have one hope for each of us: that we will not allow our compulsion to be overly complex and multi-tasked get in the way of God unleashing his full potential through each of us. A divided world dying from its own separation from the purity of God’s love depends on it!

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One Painfully Tough Decision

Disclaimer: This post is almost certain to offend some folks on both sides of the LGBT issue. So, I ask for some latitude and respect on any comments you leave here or anywhere else you might interact with me. I love each of you and mean no harm or disrespect. Thank you!

As a spiritual leader, I’m asked to make tough, consequential decisions that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers while possibly send me away tar and feathered. But that’s the nature of the job. Effective leadership doesn’t allow anyone to play it safe by remaining in a cozy alcove of indecision or inaction. Inevitably, the leader must step up and show the way, regardless of the cost.

Late last week my office administrator forward me an unsolicited e-mail entitled “Church Question” that said the following:

Hi!

My name is ————- and I am working with www.gaychurch.org to find Christian churches that provide a welcoming and affirming atmosphere to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians.

I found your church email online posted by you and I was wondering if your church would like to be listed in our directory with over 5,000 other churches that have been a welcoming and loving Christ-like communities to GLBT Christians and their families?

Listing your church will help GLBT Christians know they are in a safe place where they can be full participants in the life of the congregation – just as persons who are heterosexual, married, divorced, single, remarried and so on.

If you are interested in being listed please reply to this email with:

(1) Church name

(2) Denomination

(3) Address including state

(4) Contact information

(5) Website address if you have one

At the top of the forward, my office administrator said, “Thought you should handle this one.”

Now for some pastors, answering this e-mail would be a cut and dry decision. Some would either click the delete button, or some would enthusiastically reply with their church’s information. But for me, it was the beginning of much thought, prayer, and conversation with the person who sent me the e-mail.

I work hard to make our congregation the kind of people who will willingly embrace, love, and disciple any person we meet, either in the neighborhood or in our house of worship. I strive to get our congregational heart beating in rhythm with Jesus’ who would go to any length to find, carry, and heal even one lost sheep, no matter who they are, how they live, or what they believe (Luke 15:1-7). Our reasons have nothing to do with growing our membership roles, impressing our denominational leaders, or proving our vitality. I lead us to fulfill Jesus’ command to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

With that kind of vision, one would assume that a church would want to get its name on every list, advertised in any possible publication, and be in as many different places and spaceschurch_gay_connector as we could, just so that we could demonstrate both by word and action our willingness to include anyone in the shared journey of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. So what is my hesitancy to sign up my congregation on Gay Church’s website?

To include my church’s information on Gay Church’s website, we must be a welcoming congregation with a specific understanding of the word “welcoming”. They state:

“Welcoming” means that the church does not view homosexuality in and of itself as a sin and therefore they would welcome and treat a homosexual person no differently than any other person who walked through their church doors seeking Christ.

It all boils down to the meaning of the words welcoming or inclusive. In the Church, speaking at least for my own United Methodist tribe, that is the practical side of the larger debate swirling around LGBT sexuality. There seem to be two different meanings of inclusive. For some, being inclusive of LGBT persons implies that we include both the LGBT person and their sexuality as normative and blessed by God. For others, being inclusive implies the welcome and participation of all people in church life while being clear to identify any sin, including homosexuality, as incompatible with biblical Christian teaching, requiring repentance, accountability, and loving support into a new way of life.

Personally, I feel hemmed in by the debate around inclusiveness, and I’m desperately looking for a really good set of Holy Spirit shears to cut myself free. I passionately love people, all people and want them in my life and ministry. I think my church only grows stronger with our capacity to love and disciple anyone. One of our strengths and challenges is our widening diversity.

At the same time, I love people enough to share the truth with them, sometimes with sensitive articulation, other times with a heavy hammer, all depending on the issue and the people I’m caring for. Having spent untold hours reading the Scriptures, praying, and dialoguing with a wide diversity of people, I practice the second form of inclusion mentioned above– welcoming all people into our church life while being clear to carefully, compassionately teach what is inside and outside of Christian teaching, including my firm conviction that homosexuality remains outside of biblical Christian discipleship. It’s not self-righteousness vindication. I find no particular joy in teaching this. I know it pains some people to hear it, but at the end of the day, I must remain loyal to what I know is true. Then, the next morning, I rise up determined to love my LGBT family members and friends even more than the day before, shunning any hint of judgment or condemnation of them as people made in the image of God. Jesus died for my LGBT neighbors and friends just as intentionally as he died for me. How could I love them and accept them any less as my own sisters and brothers, even in our disagreements?

So, I would have loved to include my church on Gay Church’s website, but it appears impossible, and that greatly pains me. On the one hand, because of my church’s understanding of human sexuality, we are not invited to include our church as “gay friendly.” On the other hand, some of my conservative members and leaders would be up in arms about our church’s listing because it would appear that we would be “condoning homosexuality.” Really? That sounds like the grumbling of the Pharisees and tax collectors. Was Jesus ever condoning anything except the sacred worth of all people by simply being in ministry with them?

Given the circumstances it looks like the decision to include my church on Gay Church’s website was made for us, at least by the website itself. Again, that was a deep disappointment to me. But as a pastor, I will not stop there. I will make the hard decision to press our church towards actively pursuing, inviting, welcoming, and discipling all people, regardless their sexuality or gender identifications. Loving people isn’t easy. Living in the truth and sharing the truth can be more painful still. But if I’m going to lead an authenticly Christ-centered congregation that lives by the love and grace of God, then we must break down the barriers we’ve errected between marginalized people and the Christ who died to save them. That’s exactly what Jesus did and is doing even now.

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Real Connections in a Networked World: A Sabbath Day Reflection

Living in a small town like Laurel, no matter where you go, you’re apt to encounter a whole plethora of people. While it’s not quite the size and movement of a city, I definitely meet large numbers and a diversity of people all the time. I’ve also got the small town blessing of regular neighbors and friends whom I frequently see. On my Sabbath day today, I went out walking with my son Jacob while praying one of my favorite prayers, “Lord, show me where you are at work right now. Allow me to see where you are and what you’re doing.” I pray this in keeping with Jesus’ words about himself,

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does… (John 5:19-20a)

Striving to be like Jesus, one of my daily goals is to look for the activity of God around me and to join in.

So, as I walked along, I began to notice a pattern with passing by people I don’t yet know. There was either minimal eye-contact or maybe a muttered “hello”. But very little effort was given by either of us to genuinely connect. Have you ever wondered why this is? In situations like these, my first inclination is to avoid striking up a conversation with a stranger. I can do it, yes. It’s something I’ve trained myself to do, but it’s not my gut impulse to give a cheerful, “Hey, how are you doing? Where are you headed today?”. Part of me thinks I should be more open to them; after all, I bear the good news of Jesus Christ, something they need. Shouldn’t that be worth the effort?

And yet while we’re hesitant to connect with a stranger on the street, many of us could say that we’re highly networked with numerous people, many of whom we don’t know very well, if at all. For example, I’m active on Facebook, write this blog and through them, have conversations with people I’ve never met before. As a pastor in my community and a part of a larger United Methodist connection, I network in cooperative ventures with hundreds and hundreds of people, some of whom I barely know. Networking, especially on Internet social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Xanga are all the rage. So it’s ironic that with all of these virtual connections, so many of us find ourselves feeling incredibly lonely. It astounds me that someone can look at a computer screen filled with scores of “friends” while looking at all of their contacts listed on a Blackberry and still, at the end of the day, feel isolated. It’s happened to me before…

Circle of hands 2 lowSo as Jacob and I walked on a path along the Patuxent River here in town, I saw something I had never seen before in all my times up and down that path. A Laurel police cruiser was actually driving on the pathway! I pulled Jacob’s stroller over to let him pass, but he waved me on and then rolled his window down.

“Hello there! How are you doing?” I asked.

“Just fine,” he said. “I saw you have some precious cargo, so I thought I’d let you all pass by first.”

“Well, thank you! This is an interesting, out of the way beat you’ve got here, officer,” I said.

“Ahh… I’m just making sure there’s no trouble down here. We had a stabbing recently nearby between two homeless guys, so I’m just trying to keep this area safe for folks.”

“Well, thanks,” I said. “I probably know who they are. I’m the Senior Pastor up at First UMC on Main Street, and we do a lot of work with our homeless population.”

And on and on we went, back and forth, probably for ten minutes or so. We talked about both of us needing to get in better shape and the safety of our community. After we said goodbye, I walked away grateful for the opportunity to get to know this man and wondered how my church could do more to honor and thank our local police department. But it all began with an open “hello” and some neighborly conversation. I only wished I had more time to talk with him. And I wished even more that I had slowed down enough to talk to some others I passed while out walking.

I think God answered my prayer by reminding me that most of us in this transient,  fast paced, highly mobile, digitally networked world are starved for meaningful relationships. For all the same reasons, we’re not so certain how to keep strong the relationships we already have. No wonder the divorce rate is high. Our children are increasingly acting out and growing up far too quickly. We fill our emotional gaps with multimedia stimulation. More people are prone to addiction and mental illness.

To a degree, our culture will always suffer from these things because we are fallen creatures. However, these diseases have risen to pandemic levels as families, communities, and churches cease to be the environment where people find their personal moorings. The real connections of family, community, and Church continually remind us who we are and whose we are. Otherwise, we drift into a morass of loneliness and existential crisis.

God also reminded me to do one more thing: slow down. Take the moment to just to talk and listen with people. Don’t worry so much about time and obligation. Make space for people, for anyone– strangers and most especially the people I’m closest to. Think of every opportunity I have to speak with someone as a gift from God. For we never know just how a person, each made in the likeness of God, could turn out to be among God’s richest blessings.

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