Monthly Archives: December 2013

What a Pastor and a Duck Dynasty Star Have in Common

Schaefer and RobinsonThey both are Christians. They both are outspoken. And, they both got fired today. The cause: their stances on homosexuality. The real irony is that their positions could not be any more different.

Rev. Frank Schaefer, (as of today) a former United Methodist pastor, married off his son to his partner in a church wedding. He and his many supporters and advocates saw this  as a sacred act of compassion and love for his son and a necessary, conscientious act of disobedience to church law. After a painful church trial which found him guilty, a 30-day suspension, and massive protest, the Board of Ordained Ministry from his Annual Conference removed his credentials as an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.

Phil Robertson, star of the popular reality show Duck Dynasty, also spoke out on homosexuality, calling it sinful and lewd. Today the A&E Network indefinitely placed him on filming hiatus. His numerous supporters call this a breach of personal free-speech, protesting A&E’s actions as punitive, discriminatory, and intolerant. Meanwhile, members of the LGBT community are angered and hurt.

Two men. They represent polar opposite positions of a contentiously emotional debate. Both got fired for standing up for what they believe to be right. Is there a message or at least a lesson to be learned?

I think so.

This message would appeal to most people but offend passionate believers from both sides of the LGBT debate. There must be a way to honor each other, talk and act respectfully towards each other, and give space for each other to exist. Time will continue to bring about change, and I imagine that in generations to come, there will be no relevant debate. But for the time being, we must learn to allow space for all in the same room and at the same table.

In no way do I believe that these polar views on LGBT to be reconcilable. One side finds the views of the other equally appalling  and morally detestable. But until the day in which one view becomes the prevailing view of most, we can find ways go forward together without violence or collateral damage.

I believe the church can and should lead the way to discovering a mutual way forward. That’s because in the church, we all claim one Christ, we are one family of God, and we love each other as brothers and sisters… well… ideally. It’s all a work in progress, and certainly the struggle over LGBT is testing our mettle.

But the Apostle Paul just might provide a model of unity we can apply to our struggle. In the First Century church of Rome, there was division among those who ate meat purchased in the market place and those who believed that eating this meat was blasphemous because it was first used in idol worship as an offering. (Remember the Second Commandment!) The division was so irreconcilable that these two groups refused to eat together any longer. That was a big deal because shared meals were majorly important to the life of the church. Why? These meals were the celebration of the Lord’s Table. One group saw that eating meat was perfectly fine; the other thought this to be utterly sinful. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Paul’s solution stated in Romans 14:1-15:13 was ingenious. And I believe it is quite applicable to our struggle to find unity in the church over the presence of LGBT people. Please take the time to read this passage for yourself, but here are the highlights:

  • We are all God’s servants, so who are we to judge fellow servants who belong to God?
  • Whichever side we’re on, as Christians, we are both convinced that what we do and believe, we do for the Lord.
  • Treating others with contempt because of their divergent convictions opens us to the judgment of God.
  • Respect the fact that what one calls sin is to them truly sin. Acting in a way that distresses them is not love. So don’t let something one calls good to be spoken of by the other as evil.
  • Do not let your convictions be a stumbling block to another. Rather do anything necessary that leads to peace and mutual edification.
  • The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but rather peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Could we also say that the kingdom of God is not about sex and marriage? Jesus says as much.)
  • Whatever you believe, keep it between yourself and God.
  • We are called to bear with each other, especially when we find the faith of the other to be weak.
  • Accept each other since Christ has already accepted each of us so that we can glorify and serve Christ together.

That’s the gist of it. But imagine what the church would be like if we operate this way towards each other, in the gracious love of Jesus Christ. Larger still, imagine a world in conflict that loves each other this way… Perhaps if we did, Rev. Frank Schaefer and Phil Robertson would still be employed today.

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Joy to the Cynical World: An Unpreached Sermon

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Joy candlesWords like these can seem so sickly sweet, like cheap Christmas ribbon candy. We hear words like gladness, rejoicing, glory, splendor. At best, we could be tempted to gloss over them as fluffy religious sentimentalism. At worst, we could say, “yeah, right…”, sweeping them behind us as contrived, naive notions. After all, look at our world. Sure, we see glimpses of gladness. We feel passing moments of joy. There’s glory and splendor to be found here and there. But to define all of life and our world by those terms? To use a popular expression: Really???

We have so accustomed ourselves to disappointment. People let us down. Politicians don’t keep their promises. Companies are corrupt. Preachers are phony. Lovers leave us. Parents  fail us. And the list goes on and on… From one broken dream to the next, we live in a cynical world that expects the worst, and in that respect, at least, is rarely disappointed.

The truth is, we often see and receive exactly what we expect to see and receive. I once pastored a woman who seemed to live in letdown. She would always complain about the people failed her- children who demanded much and gave little, friends who abandoned her, church friends who never paid her attention, pastors who failed to follow through, etc. etc. She had suffered some genuine losses, to the point that she banked on everything else turning into eventual grief. I always felt kind of anxious around her. I did the best I could to care for her, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I became yet another form of disillusionment. Sure enough, despite my best efforts, I did.

People who expect the worst will find it. Cynicism spawns more cynicism.

So on a much brighter note, if it is true that those look for the worst will get it, might it also be true that those who look for the best will also receive what they’re looking for? If I’m expecting joy, gladness, splendor, and glory just as readily as the cynic is expecting doom, what is to say I wouldn’t also find all of that?

The cynic would readily reply, “But that’s just it! We don’t get what we’re looking for. Dreams don’t pan out the way we want. That’s the way it is. You can expect nothing and never be disappointed, and you must always brace for the worst.” On that gloomy note, cynics always pride themselves for having purely pragmatic realism. The only thing sacred to the cynic is Murphy’s Law: “…anything that can possibly go wrong, does.”

But there is another sacred truth the cynic cannot (or will not) see. There is also a constant thread of right, of goodness, of love, of blessing, of mercy, of grace that permeates the world. For every wound, there is the possibility of healing. For every lie, there is the possibility for a greater truth. For every set-back, there is the possibility for growth and strength. For every transgression, an invitation to forgiveness. In that way, good always has the last word, if… if… if we listen for it and make room for it.

Looking back at the Scripture reference, notice the setting. It’s in the dry, barren lifeless desert, parched, and languishing for the waters of life. The desert wilderness is the cynic’s playground where everything he looks for is validated tenfold. But then, a strange sight begins to emerge.

Late Winter CrocusIt’s a crocus. A crocus is the perfect image for the kind of hope Isaiah is describing. At my last church, there were crocuses planted in a forgotten flower bed. In the late grey and brown of winter before there was a spot of green or color, the crocus bloomed. The royal purple of this little low flower shouted the promise of life to anyone who saw it. Then, not too long after the crocus appeared, spring began to slowly wake up. After the yawn, spring takes over in an explosion of green, color, life and just fun.

A crocus blooms in the desert. It’s easy to miss or dismiss, but it points to a much greater reality. Those who see it rejoice. Their hearts are gladdened. Then suddenly the great cedar trees of Lebanon and the splendor of Carmel and Sharon pipe in, and before we know it, we see the glorious splendor of the Lord of all life and salvation. It all began in the desert, and yes, it had the last word with convincing power!

†††††††

“So this is Christmas…” John Lennon once sang. What I see in the dead winter of Christmas is not the full bloom of life, but an invitation to shift our vision. In contrast to the stark world of emptiness, shallowness, bitterness, and pain, a child is born. A child on her own doesn’t have the power to change anything, of course. But welled up within her is an explosion of potential, that yes, can move and shake the world.

Nelson Mandela. Ghandi. Rosa Parks. Pope Francis. Billy Graham. Malala Yousafzai. A 7th grade science teacher. A mother. They all started as helpless babies and children. But they grew into individuals who have blessed and healed the world when they were unleashed, fully living into their God-given purpose.

The reality of Christmas- the Messiah born to a peasant virgin and laid to rest in a manger somewhere in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem- has the power to shift our focus from the cynicism of this world to the bubbling wellspring of life that can quench the thirst and revive the spirit of anyone who drinks deeply. It has the power to turn depression into joy.

“Like a crocus, it will burst into bloom…”

If you think about it, our favorite stories of Christmas are all about redemption. Scrooge went from tightly clenched money hoarding to extreme generosity. George Bailey went from hopelessness to seeing the wonder and value of his life. The Grinch went from despising all things Christmas to seeing that Christmas, as Dr. Seuss so subtly put it, “means a little bit more.” Note: in each of these hallowed stories, nothing in the world changed… at first. But through a changed heart, the world would be indelibly changed through them.

“Joy to the World” has nothing to do with claptrap Christmasy junk and sentimentalism. Joy is a changed heart that can see and create redemptive good, no matter the circumstances in which it finds itself. Joy, like a crocus in the wilderness and a Child in a manger, can blossom within tears, depression, and loss. (I know, because I’ve experienced that several times.) Joy can be sung in simple quiet or in rapturous shouting. That’s because joy is simply a shift in attitude from cynicism to thankfulness. From there, new life begins.

My prayer for us this Advent and Christmas is that we would all open ourselves to being shifted away from cynicism and towards the joy of Jesus who is Emmanuel, God with us. Even a little shift in the right direction can go a long, long way towards blessing ourselves and others with the gift of Christ’s life.

May the love and life of Jesus Christ fill us where we are empty, sooth us where we are hurting, sing with us where we are happy, walk with us in our everyday coming and going, forgive us to offer forgiveness, and bless us to be a blessing to others, this day and always. In all these ways, through Christ in us, may joy indeed come to our world. Amen.

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Why I’m Opting Out of the Christmas War

No SantaYes, in the eyes of some, I am committing high treason or at least a serious abdication of my moral responsibilities as a Christian, but I’m declaring an end to my participation in the so-called Christmas War. If I was the commanding general of the Christmas War, I would call for an immediate cease fire. Why is that? It’s a completely unnecessary war and one more thing that makes us Christians look ridiculous.

You know the Great Christmas War I’m talking about. It has been waged on several major fronts which are once again picking up in intensity this time of year:

  • The Battle of the Name  What do we call Christmas? And what seasonal greeting do we offer others? Is it Christmas? Is it Xmas? (And by the way, X is a valid shortening of the name. Contrary to popular belief, X is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek, so yes indeed, it stands for Christ. It’s not some conspiratorial attempt to X out Jesus.) Do we wish people a Merry Christmas, or do we wish people a generic Happy Holidays, not wishing to offend our non-Christian neighbors? (On another aside, “Happy Holidays” originated as a way to combine a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, especially since for a long time the New Year celebration was the main event, not Christmas. Christmas did not become a widely celebrated event in the form we now have it until sometime in the 19th Century.) Do we want the department stores to make their profits from Christmas or the Holidays?
  • The Battle of Town Square Every year, Christians complain that secular society is running poor baby Jesus out of full display on the town square. In the name of separation of Church and State, he’s being thrown out of schools opting for a more secular or multicultural holiday celebration. Or he’s having to share the town corner stage with a Jewish Menorah and a Kwanzaa Mishumaa Saba. Worse yet, he may get no mention or space anywhere in a public forum.
  • Kneeling SantaThe Battle of the North Pole For many Christians, Santa Claus has become the symbol of all things secular and commercial about the Christmas season. I’ve seen Christian t-shirts with a crossed out Santa bearing the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” I’ve also seen statues and pictures of a full red-suited, white-bearded Santa Claus with his red Santa hat by his feet, kneeling before baby Jesus in the manger. (Yes, I get the sentiment, but really? Do we need to show an Americanized, fictitious version of Saint Nicholas bowing down before baby Jesus? I know the Scriptures say that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, but does that really include Santa Claus? I digress…) Nevertheless, for many Christians, Santa Claus and the whole secularization and commercialization of Christmas is a menace and disgrace to the observance of Jesus Christ’s birth. While leaving poor Santa alone for a moment, I agree. But why keep whining about it, as if shaming people towards Jesus’ birth will change the hearts of anyone?

Here’s the reality: Christmas is indeed an important Christian feast day and season which begins Christmas Day and concludes with Epiphany. Just as pronounced- if not more!- is the reality that we are now immersed in a highly cultural phenomenon far more intense and unlike any other time of the year. Can you think of any other season with more music devoted to it? Can you think of any other time of the year as highly saturated with parties, festivities, trappings, family, and economic activity?

It is simply a losing proposition to think that somehow battling a powerful cultural phenomenon most all of us partake in, based on the celebration of Jesus’ birth, will change anything for the good. Do we really think that forcing people to say and accept “Merry Christmas”, forcing Jesus into public squares and schools, and stomping out Santa Claus are going to somehow restore the joy of Christmas into the hearts of our neighbors? Don’t bet on it. Is there really some kind of idyllic Christmas to which we can compare? Not really. Christmas has always been a cultural celebration that is both religious and secular, and to some degree Christians have continually lamented that. You can see how successful we’ve been turning the tide!

NativitySo instead of loudly warring against society in a fruitless effort win back the heart and soul of Christmas, I want to practice something much more Christmasy. Quiet love. Jesus’ birth was a quiet, largely unnoticed event, in poverty, among the clamoring hustle and bustle of that day. The angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth wasn’t even a public event. The angels came to a few ragamuffin shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem village to announce the good news. Once the shepherds found and saw Jesus, they went out to share the good news, much to the amazement of all they told, but there’s no evidence that anything more came of it. Jesus still entered the world in humility and simplicity.

It’s an oft overlooked irony that the great joy, peace, and life of the world, the Word of God born in human flesh, the desire of the nations, entered the world largely unnoticed. Our gaudy, triumphant celebrations badly miss that point. For that reason, of all the Christmas hymns we sing, “Silent Night” best captures the essence of Christmas. In darkness and silence, the wonderful, radiant holiness of God was born.

What would it look like for us Christians to drop our anxious, self-righteous war for Christmas and move through the Advent and Christmas season in the way of Jesus’ birth, in quiet love? What if we embodied the peace, joy, hope, love and goodwill we sing about every year in the ways we talk to people, care for them, and serve them? What if we quit worrying about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, public displays, and how the rest of the world carries on with its version of the season? What if we became the light of the world- not a blaring, angry, shaming spotlight, but the inviting, warm, glowing warmth of Jesus for cold, weary people looking to find their way?

That’s a far cry from the way we’ve carried on Christmas!

Humble, quiet, hopeful, peaceful, simple, joyful, self-giving… Now that sounds like a Christmas worth having.

 

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