Category Archives: Rants

The NFL Has Outlawed Conscientious Patriotism

626307AC-2B2C-49B7-BD56-B230736C3B66To stand or to kneel, or to do anything else quiet and unassuming during the playing of the American National Anthem… The decision has been made. The NFL has mandated all players to stand for the Anthem or to remain in the locker room until its conclusion. This is the NFL’s “solution” to a raging controversy swirling around issues of free-speech, employee rights, and how freely a player can express himself. And note: this change was made without any consultation with the players.

Let’s get one thing straight. The NFL’s decision has nothing to do with honoring America or patriotism. It is about protecting its bottom line. The NFL’s real bottom line is not America. It’s not patriotism. Too many people got upset at kneeling players, and the league lost eyeballs and dollars. So it’s all about money, pure and simple.

Now before anyone starts howling that I’m some kind of un-American anti-capitalist liberal commie…(I’m certainly not a liberal. I belive in free markets, which means I’m not a Communist.) I am a proud American. I express my pride by standing to pledge allegiance to the flag. I stand and sing the National Anthem. I do both with my hand over my heart. It’s an honor to do it. I’m proud of our military, our Constitution, and all the other American institutions that make us the greatest nation in the world.

My proud patriotism also extends to protect the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience for all my fellow Americans, and that includes their right to stand or not stand for the National Anthem. I don’t have to like their refusal to participate, but I will do anything to protect their freedom of refusal. That’s one of the greatest things about America. For civilians like me, I have the choice. To make a personal choice and to respect the freedoms of others to make their choices is true, proud Americanism.

But to say it again, the NFL’s decision is not about patriotism or Americanism.

To protect its profits, the NFL is mandating its employees to follow a new rule that may very well violate many players’ conscience. Granted, the NFL believes it gives these players an out. Players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem can stay in the locker room, after all. But that’s akin to, “Do what I say or leave the room.” It is a backhanded, implicit form of penalizing and silencing that will create just as much division as before while also inviting scorn and shame upon players who are following their deeply held convictions. That is unjust, and therefore inhumane.

Now someone might say, “C’mon, Chris, these guys are being paid millions of dollars. They just need to shut up, suck it up, follow the rules or get another job.” Let’s clear up a few red herrings here. First, it’s not a matter of how much someone gets paid. Whether someone earns $50,000 or $5,000,000 a year, employees are still thinking, conscientious human beings, many of whom compete hard and sacrifice much to get the jobs they have. Simply leaving one job to get another is much easier said than done and says nothing to respect an employee’s sense of conscientiousness and justice.

“Still,” you might say, “this is a business, not a social club. Players are paid to play, not to express their views on the field.” Okay, then. In that case, the NFL must be consistent and ban all forms of personal expression on the field, including any form of celebration and religious expression such as gathering to pray before the game starts, crossing themselves, pointing to heaven, and kneeling after a good play. (No kneeling, right??) And while they’re at it, the NFL should mandate players to cover up all those tattoos. Aren’t those personal forms of expression? But, for various other reasons, those expressions don’t seem to offend the majority, and so they’re still allowed… for now.

Meanwhile, this newly enacted form of disparity created by the NFL still remains. Players can express certain personal things on the field, but not other things. Those other things— well, they hurt the NFL’s revenue stream. So the NFL, in effect, outlawed some players’ expressions of faithful patriotism and speech. In so doing, it has proved that money trumps any form of patriotism, conscience, or a player’s dignity.

The NFL is certainly within their right to do all of the above. It is a business who hires employees to do a job and follow its rules. So the question we must all ask ourselves is: how much can I support an organization who increasingly treats their players like indentured gladiators and less like principled human beings, all for the sake of money? That’s something I’m wrestling with now.

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A Christian Call to Action Towards Ending Gun Violence

[This is a letter I shared with my congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church, this past Sunday February 18, 2018.]

img_1795This week, my heart has been very heavy. By now we have all seen the news of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL. As a parent, I think of all those parents and grandparents who sent their children to school that morning, never to see them alive again or to discover that they have been hospitalized from gun shot wounds and other related injuries.

I send my children to school every day. To think that this could never happen here in their schools is folly.

Today, I will yet again lead us in prayer for the victims of Parkland, FL, their families, their community, and our elected leaders. I will pray…

…just as I prayed after the Columbine High School massacre,

…and after the massive shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO,

…and as I prayed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School,

…and as I prayed after a large-scale shooting in an office building in San Bernardino, CA,

…and as I prayed after the massacre at an Orlando, FL, night club,

…and as I prayed after the widespread carnage at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, NV,

…and as I prayed after a gunman invaded a church in Sutherland Springs, TX, killing over two dozen worshippers,

…and as I prayed a just few weeks ago for a shooting at a high school in Marshall County, Kentucky.

There are so many others, too.

I have to confess to you that I am getting very tired of simply praying. I’m running out of words, and I have run out of patience. I believe God wants us to pray, yes. I also believe that God has put us on a divine mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In other words, as disciples of Jesus, we are in the business of bringing about real change and eternal life in a world bent on violence and death. We do this in fulfillment of what we pray every Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, it is time for us to act towards ending all this senseless gun violence and death. I know there are controversial issues involved in this crisis- issues such as gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement procedures. I know we all don’t see eye to eye on these hot-button topics, and that may make talking about gun violence and forging a way towards ending it a difficult task. But I also believe it’s time to step outside of our familiar political/ideological belief systems. It’s time to get humble, to listen, and to courageously advocate for some common sense solutions that will most likely touch on the issues of gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement.

We are conservative and liberal and everywhere in between. But we’re not dealing with a conservative or a liberal problem, or a Democrat or a Republican problem. We’re dealing with a human problem whose perpetrators and victims go well beyond any notion of party or ideology. Therefore, we cannot be afraid of having a conversation about how to end gun violence, and then we cannot be afraid of stepping out to be advocates for the lives of our neighbors, most especially our children.

In the face of this crisis, it’s tempting to sit back and mindlessly watch the endless talking head debates on TV, to point our angry fingers of blame and to get cynical about the state of our world. It’s all too easy to throw up our hands and surrender to the magnitude of the problem. However, it is increasingly clear that we cannot afford to sit in idle fear any longer. To do so puts the lives of our neighbors, ourselves, and our children at grave risk.

In response, I would love for you to share with me your ideas and thoughts. What would you like to see Trinity do? How would you be a part of it? What steps can we and you take right now to be Christ’s disciples who work for an end to gun violence in our schools and communities?

Again, I ask you not to respond merely from within a familiar ideological framework. Let’s put aside bumper-sticker slogans, the usual talking points, and shrill arguments. These tactics are too easy, too unimaginative, and frankly too dangerously safe. Let’s stretch out, because clearly the ideological liberal and conservative trenches that many people shout from are not serving our country well. It’s time to extend ourselves across the breach, stand in the gap, and forge a new way ahead. Nothing short of precious human life is at stake.

In the coming weeks, I will offer us some opportunities to prayerfully discern and brainstorm some Christ-like ways for us to advocate and work for safer schools and communities shielded from the threat of gun violence. I ask you to join me in the effort. And as we pray, may we follow God’s prompting to act in courageous ways for the protection of our communities and schools, all in the name of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.

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My Ancestors Came from S***hole Countries, Too

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The Gray Family from Aberdeen, Scotland

Lately, I have rekindled my interest in geneology and joined Ancestry.com. I joined to find some more information about my father’s family. Instead I have immersed myself in researching my mother’s lineage. It’s very true that whenever you start digging into your family’s past, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of the most interesting facts: on April 19, 1850, my 17-year-old second great grandfather William Gray landed in New York with his family. They were from Aberdeen, Scotland. William Gray was among a large wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th Century journeying to America to escape widespread poverty. Eventually he met and married my second great grandmother Hannah Shalloo, an Irish immigrant from County Cork.

After moving to Dearborn, Michigan where his mother and father stayed for the remainder of their lives, William Gray moved to Kansas. There, William and Hannah had children, raised a family, and lived and died as a farmers. William Gray’s obituary states that the Grays were among the pioneering families of Kansas.

Fast forward to 2018. Yesterday, President Trump was reported to say that he no longer wants immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries whom he derided as “shithole countries”. Instead he favors immigrants from Norway. (?) While the President later denied that he used that specific term, the same Washington Post article that broke the story mentions past comments he has made disparaging immigrants from poorer countries and racial minorities in general.

If I could have a moment to speak to President Trump, I would say these words: “Mr. President, my ancestors came from s***hole countries, too.”

19th Century Scotland and Ireland were racked in poverty. Famine, premature death and disease due to failing crops pushed many to leave home just to survive. Scots in particular are fiercely proud of their country and family. For people like my grandparents to leave their ancestral home to settle in an unknown country speaks to the desparation they lived in.

When they arrived in America, they came to a country that was growing increasingly wary of their presence. They were poor. They were culturally different. They soaked up jobs and homes. In fact, by the 1890’s, under a cloud of Irish and Scottish xenophobia, the United States government sharply curtailed the number of Scotts and Irish who could immigrate here.

And yet, where would our country be today without people like my grandparents, William and Hannah Gray— poor Scottish and Irish immigrants from economically impoverished countries?

It’s clear that Mr. Trump does not possess a broad vision of America’s greatness.

I personally know people from these “s***hole countries” he describes. They are friends of mine from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe. I have visited the extreme poverty they came from. In America, these immigrants have become very successful citizens.  They bring their skills, their culture, and the story of their lives to our country. They are entrepreneurial, hard working, wonderful people. They have already made America great. Mr. Trump’s derision of these countries is an affront to them and to thousands upon thousands of men and women who immigrate to our country legally from the places he deems to be nothing but excrement.

Mr. Trump’s vision of America does not make room for us to be the America we have always cherished- a country of opportunity, freedom, and dignity for all people. He has defined America’s greatness by excluding and demeaning whole segments of the American and world populations. That is not America. It’s certainly not the America my grandparents and so many others came to in which to live, thrive and prosper.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭23:9‬

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Pastor Robert Jeffress, Your Statement on Trump’s War Footing is Dangerously Unbiblical

Dear Pastor Jeffress,

In your August 8 statement, you made the startling claim that, “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” You based your statement on a reading of Romans 13 which says,

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭13:1-4‬

IMG_1521While it’s true that God has established and empowered secular authorities to exercise justice, your application of this scripture is reckless and unfaithful to its original context and intent. Thus, your statement is an alarming case of biblical prooftexting and therefore dangerously unbiblical.

For you to personally commend President Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the North Korean regime is your prerogative. You’re just as free to do that as others are to condemn it. However, I take grave exception to your theological implication that God also commends Trump’s words and actions. That God has entrusted presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, and dictators with the sword of authority is established in scripture. However, to also suggest that God has given President Trump the green light of heavenly blessing to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea is one of the worst and potentially most deadly pieces of unbiblical theology I have ever encountered.

Let’s look again at what the Bible says.

In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul was establishing the church’s relationship with the governing authorities. For these Christians residing in Rome, Paul was pointing straight to Caesar and the local authorities Caesar empowered to maintain his rule. Everyone knew that Caesar was no friend of the church. In fact, Emporers Claudius and Nero both persecuted Jews and Christians, using them as scapegoats for Roman civil unrest or disaster. Nevertheless, Paul urged the church to respect their governing authorities by following the law, paying taxes, and giving honor as required. After all, these authorities derive their power from God who is the source of all power and authority.

This, however, does not mean that God sanctions everything that these authorities do. Far from it. John the Baptist confronted King Herod’s adultery with his brother Philip’s wife, which would inevitably lead to John’s imprisonment and execution. Jesus warned his disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” The book of Acts reports that an angel of God publicly struck down King Herod when he refused to acknowledge God while relishing the divine accolades the people were giving him. The Old Testament is filled with example after example of God punishing kings and rulers when they abused their power.

Back to your argument, Pastor Jeffress, if we were to follow your “divine authority and sanction” thinking to its logical conclusion, then we must also reasonably assume that God has given Kim Jong Un the authority to build nuclear warheads to protect his people and stamp out whatever he deems to be evil. And why not? God has given this despot the authority, so according to your theology, it must be good for him to use it to advance whatever he deems to be good, too.

Still, let’s assume that we arrive at the dreadful point in which all diplomatic avenues are closed and war with North Korea is the only remaining deterrent to their launching nuclear weapons against the United States and our allies. I don’t envy the terrible decisions Presidents of the United States must make to protect the American people and our interests abroad. Putting our country on a footing towards war is a weighty decision many Presidents have had to make, and President Trump may be yet another President to push that button. War with North Korea would devastate millions of lives in Asia, and for the first time in history, might even unleash retaliatory nuclear war. Foreign policy experts agree that there is no good way to deal with North Korea. For that reason alone, President Trump and our allies certainly need our prayers for wisdom and guidance.

Yet no one should ever gleefully declare as you have that war and threats of war against North Korea is God’s will, simply because the President has the authority to crank up the American war machine and you happen to endorse his actions. You, the President, and all the rest of us could use a dose of President Lincoln’s humble theology:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.

While some might try to use these words from Lincoln to claim God’s moral authority in their great struggle, Lincoln’s intent was quite the opposite: do not assume we are perfectly in God’s will. Do what we believe to be right, but do so knowing that we operate alongside God’s sovereign will, and that may not be within our side of the struggle. God may ordain something very different with consequences farther reaching and devastating than we could imagine, as Lincoln stated in his Second Inaugural Address.

All this said, it is clear, Pastor Jeffress, that you have taken scripture out of context and have twisted it to claim divine approval for President Trump’s rhetoric. That, sir, makes you a false prophet espousing a dangerous kind of theology that will ill-serve this nation or any other. I doubt you possess the wherewithal to recant your statement, but it would be a much welcomed and needed thing to do, for the good of the church, our nation, and the world.

 

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Arguments in a Vacuum

I was sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car and saw the oncoming vehicle quickly pull out into the intersection in front of us. There was no way to avoid hitting that car. All I could do was close my eyes and brace for the inevitable. CRASH! Even with my futile efforts to brace myself, I got pretty banged up and took an ambulance ride to the hospital. (My sister’s car was totaled, but thank God, no one in either car was seriously hurt.)

Last Tuesday I published a blog post giving my support to a sister-in-Christ, Tara “T.C.” Morrow, a woman married to another woman, who is seeking ordination as a Deacon in our United Methodist Church. I have not publicly shared my views on LGBTQI+ issues for at least four years, opting instead to be a voice for dialogue, mutual respect, and a way forward– work to which I am still strongly committed. But I felt a firm push from Holy Spirit to speak out for T.C., and so I did.

Then I braced myself for the inevitable crash. But then again, why put myself in this position at all?

After watching T.C. Morrow denied commissioning as a Provisional Deacon simply because she is a lesbian, I could not remain silent anymore. To block her path to fulfilling God’s call upon her life as a servant of the church is to depreciate her Christian character, her gifts, graces, her place in the church, and even the integrity of her relationship with Jesus Christ. That is a travesty which damages her and the whole Body of Christ, and it was time for me to say something about it.

In so doing, I knew there would be backlash. It didn’t come at first. In fact I was surprised by all the overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially from folks I didn’t expect to hear from. But then like a tsunami wave, the backlash hit. I’m sure there will be more surges to come.

In writing this post, I went back to re-read some of the comments from my conservative siblings in Christ. Here’s how they reacted to my post:

“…bending Scripture to suit… [your] desires”

“Pastors and church leaders will be held accountable for preaching false doctrine and misleading their ‘flocks'”.

“You are building a house on sand.”

“…teaching that lust is not a sin.”

“…calling sin something else and refusing to call people to holiness – that’s a serious problem.”

“May it never be said of me that I affirmed anyone in their sin. Do not be deceived.”

“There is no love in this. This is nothing but eisegesis.” [Eisegesis is expressing one’s own personal ideas instead of lifting up the meaning of the biblical text.]

And there have been other comments and inferences to the effect that I’ve thrown out, ignored, or perverted Scripture, that I’m accommodating societal sin, that I don’t understand true love, that I’ve been led astray, that I’m turning a blind eye to sin, calling evil good, blah, blah, blah…

Nobody has explicitly accused me of apostasy yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.

IMG_1437What gets to me about all the criticism, however, is that much of it is arguments in a vacuum. Folks are thinking and arguing for principles that do not intersect reality. Yet when confronted with reality, they hot-skip through it like bare feet on hot coals in order to stay put in their disembodied principle bubbles. This occurred to me after I read and re-read many carefully articulated arguments about how sinful homosexuality is, and about how folks like me are supposedly bending the Bible and church law to accommodate our agendas.

So let’s talk about accommodating agendas. That’s the first argument in a vacuum. It’s clear that at present the only agenda the United Methodist Church is accommodating is the conservative majority’s on this issue. Their attitude that ordaining someone like T.C. Morrow would be “accommodating” sin tragically misses the point. It ignores all of the gifts that people like her bring to the church. Anyone who does not know, refuses to know, or refuses to see all the blessings, gifts and graces that people like T.C. bring to the Christ’s Body, opting instead to throw her and other gifted and grace-filled gay and lesbian Christians into a garbage can category of “sexually sinful,” demonstrate the principle vacuum they choose to indwell.

That leads to the second argument vacuum of my critics- that all gays and lesbians in committed relationships are living in sin. I’ve tried to make the biblical argument that folks like T.C. Morrow are not “living in sin,” but let’s also look at the fruit of their lives, which is something my critics at times blatantly ignore. Living in sin blunts a person’s entire existence. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). I think we would all agree that sexual sin is so fundamentally damaging because sexuality is a key aspect of our humanity. Sexual sin or any other deeply ingrained sin affects the quality of our relationships with God and others and mars our psychological and emotional well-being, our self-worth, and our judgment. Denial and lies become second nature. Live with a lie long enough, and our whole lives become a deception designed to keep the lie of sin in darkness.

It’s hard to say emphatically enough that this does not at all describe so many gay and lesbian Christians I know! They are powerful disciples of Jesus, whole, emotionally and spiritually healthy, balanced, everyday people. Their lives exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no lie or denial. Granted, many have had to grapple with the emotional and spiritual pain of coming to grips with their sexuality, but that stems from being gay and lesbian in a larger world and church culture that is hostile to them. Aside from this very real struggle, gay and lesbian people are just as whole and healthy in Christ as straight people. To then turn around and say that these same folks are broken in sexual sin is a statement made from ignorance, plain and simple.

*******

In my Facebook feed, one friend, a gay man in a committed relationship, went through great pains to share how balanced, happy, healthy and fulfilled he is, especially in how he applies Christ-like principles to his life and relationships. (I’m sure that’s not the first or the last time this man has had to prove that he’s “normal”- something us straight people will never have to experience.)

In response, one of my conservative friends replied, “This conversation isn’t about you. It’s about what the church teaches,” as in church law and doctrine. Say what??

I was totally flabbergasted by that comment! Is not the church a people of God? Is not the church called to be in ministry and community with real, live people? This rather callous response is a perfectly unfortunate example of someone choosing to insulate themselves within an impermeable principle bubble. No worthwhile missiology and ecclesiology can ignore the real life stories of everyday people, or write them off as rubbish. But for folks arguing in a principle vacuum, real people, their lives and experiences don’t matter as much as the convictions they desperately cling to, in this case their badly misinformed “biblical” belief that– despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary!– all gay and lesbian people in committed relationships are lost in sexual sin.

In closing, let me say that not all my critics are making arguments in a vacuum. Several have the humility and decency to remain open and to keep wrestling. I join them in their struggle, all the while striving to avoid my own potential argument vacuums, too. I want to join those who remain teachable, moldable, and open to the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit keeps us alive to the realities of our mission field while keeping us tightly tethered to the anchor of our faith, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.

 

 

 

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Unity Can’t Be Manufactured

Unity! We are one! We are brothers and sisters! We are connected in covenant! We are connected in Christ! One God- one people!

These are some of the phrases from this year’s annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our theme this year is “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.” We have a great logo emblazoned on all of our Annual Conference stuff. Our worship has lifted up unity, at times more than God. Every speaker has dutifully used the unity tag-line in their presentations.

It’s usually an accurate assumption that when something is overemphasized to the fevered pitch of of cult-like refrains, that same something is glaringly absent. On the one hand, I get it. Our United Methodist Church’s near schism over the issue of human sexuality is something we must address. Most of us want to move through our impasse on whether or not to fully include LGBTQI+ persons while holding our church together. So let’s do all we can to lift up our desire for unity. But on the other hand, it all sounds so contrived. It’s manufactured unity. It has sounded and felt forced.

I’m saddened by the fact that we sing the songs of unity but so far have not adequately demonstrated that we know how to unify ourselves. We caucus ourselves based on ideology. We clothe ourselves based on ideology, i.e. wearing a rainbow-colored stole or not, and what it may mean if we wear one or refuse. In our huddles, we talk about “them” and what “they” are doing to the church. We have a hard time fully respecting those whose views are different from our own. Many are afraid to openly express their views for fear of social and even professional repercussions. Just in what I’ve observed over the last couple of days, I see and hear so many examples of folks writing off others, making snide remarks, or making disparaging comments about a speaker.

If unity is going be a reality beyond a spiffy conference logo and lovey dovey liturgy, we need to change our behavior. I’d like to passionately suggest to my brothers and sisters of the Baltimore-Washington Conference that unity could look like this:

  • Respect one another. I know many people on either side of the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people. They are deeply committed to Jesus. They champion his gospel. They are people of high integrity and deep theological, biblical understanding. They are worthy of my respect and the respect of those who differ with them. That said, if we truly respect them and at the same time desire unity, we must make room for these folks to be who they are in Christ and to be in ministry in the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads them.
  • Listen to one another. Listening springs from a desire to understand. A desire to understand comes from a place of humble love. And that leads to a third thing needed for unity…
  • Hold a humble love for all. When we choose to love in humility, we recognize that our side of the story is not the only side. We’re teachable and moldable. We’re flexible and practical, even when we stand on core principles. We desire to be servants, not victors in an ideological struggle. Even when we strive for justice and righteousness, we can do that with a desire to embrace our sisters and brothers whose vision of justice and righteousness is different from our own.

As I read what I just wrote, I’m struck by how unoriginal these ideas are. In fact, they sound like variations of lessons I learned in kindergarten. Treat others with respect. Be a good listener. Be a good learner. Learn how to get along with everyone. Don’t be a bully.

Yet somehow our adult big ideas and firm principles have mingled with unresolved fear and have overridden our childlike abilities to respect, listen, and humbly love.

So… what if we put aside our fears, took on Jesus’ heart, and build true, short bridges between one another? Then, we might have a unity worth celebrating and not just fabricating.

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Why Bother with Churches Full of Hypocrites?

(The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday January 22, 2017.)

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

‭Matthew‬ ‭23:1-13, 15, 23-28‬

As I thought about today’s topic- the claim made by many non-religious skeptics that the church is filled with hypocrites- I could not avoid this passage of scripture. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult to read, and believe me, it’s even more difficult to teach and preach. And yet, the jarring parts of the Bible which perplex and disturb us are most likely the things we need to hear the most.

The more I read today’s passage, the more I’m convinced that this body of Jesus’ teaching was preserved very intentionally to admonish the whole church. Jesus allows us no room to sit in idle condemnation of other people, whether it’s the Pharisees of yesterday or today. This passage stands as a mirror to the Pharisee ensconced in each of us. It’s a warning, a gut check, a spiritual reality check.

img_1185Even then, Jesus was not condemning or writing off these fellow Jews. Of the major Jewish sects in his time, Jesus was most at home with the Pharisees. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ commitment to faithfully live out Torah in the world. Jesus shared their theology, especially the Jewish belief in the resurrection and the kingdom to come. So Jesus was not addressing the Pharisees as an outsider rebel rouser railing against an evil establishment, but as a likeminded Jew. This was very much an in-house confrontation.

As Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t hear stern anger or harsh pulpit pounding. I hear despair and deep disappointment. I do see anger in Jesus’ words, too, but it was anger from a broken heart rather than righteous indignation.

Hypocrisy…  In essence, hypocrisy is claiming to be something I’m not. It’s a deception, a living lie. I become a hypocrite when I insist on a virtue I do not possess while hiding behind a plastic mask of righteousness.

Hypocrisy is driven by one thing: fear. It’s the fear of confronting my  whole self- both the good and bad, my angels and my demons, my purity and my impurity. It’s the fear of others seeing and confronting the real me. It’s the fear of being unloved, under-valued, and under-appreciated.

And when it comes to the world of spirituality and religion, hypocrisy is particularly ugly and all too easy to find. It’s our most costly liability. We people of faith hold up very high standards of values, virtue, and righteousness. At times we prophetically challenge evil and unrighteousness in our world. So when we act in contradiction to the life of faith and righteousness we profess, especially when our duplicity wounds other people, our hypocrisy becomes terribly egregious.

When Jesus called out the egregious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he pulled no punches. He accused the Pharisees of showboating their religious practices and adornments to impress the masses. He chastised their scrupulous interpretations of religious law while flatly ignoring more pressing issues of justice and mercy.  Jesus called out their painstaking efforts to fulfill every public religious obligation while blinding themselves to their inner corruption.

Look at that list. Little has changed!  Today’s people of faith can be just as showy and pompous with their religious practices while typifying that old adage of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” People of faith often excel in outward appearances of religious dedication while relegating the brokenness within them to the back closets of denial.

ghosts handWorse still, most people rarely own up to their hypocrisy. That’s because an honest confession of hypocrisy is an admission to living a lie. The illusion has been delusion. Feigned substance has been a wispy shadow. That’s why the typical reaction to a charge of hypocrisy is to lob the accusation right back at the accuser with an incensed retort of  “Who do you think you are to judge me?”

Other than a denial-infused response, how can we disciples of Jesus Christ best respond to the skeptics’ charge of hypocrisy? It’s very simple, actually: own it.

It’s been my experience that the harshest critics of the church, those who readily point out our hypocrisies, have been significantly wounded and deeply disappointed by the church. For many of them, I’m sure it’s cathartic. It’s also a way to mobilize a resistance against our malevolence.That said, we make matters worse when we respond to our critics by saying things like:

“That doesn’t describe me or my church.”

“That happened a long time ago.  It’s time to move on and get over it!”

“You are talking about those other Christians who give a bad name to good Christians like us.”

Those kinds of statements are simply other shades of denial.

Non-Christian skeptics keenly see something about us that we sometimes fail to see about ourselves. They know that Christians everywhere and from every era are bound together as the church. And they’re right. We would also say that each of us are a part of the living body of Christ, a body that encompasses everyone who has been baptized into the faith of Jesus. That would include saints and villains like St. Francis of Assisi and an American South slaveholder, Dorothy Day and Fred Phelps, Sojourner Truth and Pope Urban II (who called for the First Crusade), the many Christians who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop who risked his life housing hundreds of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. All of these Christians and all the rest of us share in one church, sharing both our great good and our terrible actions and inactions.

We must therefore listen to those who hold grievances against the church, acknowledge them, ask their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, and commit ourselves even more fervently to be like Jesus.

In his book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller writes about his experience of being a Christian campus minister at Reed College in Oregon, a liberal, humanist college whose faculty and student body by and large regard organized religion with a high degree of disdain.

Every year Reed College holds a weekend of unbridled revelry called Renn Fayre. On the last night, they lock out any authorities to spend the entire night partying, getting drunk and high with the option painting their naked bodies blue while running around campus.

Donald Miller and his friends decided to be there for that final night and set up a booth with a sign that said “Confess Your Sins”. There was a catch, however. If any students approached the booth, the participants inside the booth would spend time confessing their sins and the sins of the church to these students. A student named Jake gave into his curiosity and visited the booth. Donald Miller shared with him who they were and why they were there. Once Jake expressed an interest, Miller confessed his sins to Jake:

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short… Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 123-4)

Miller recalled that most of these confessionals ended in tearful embraces. Indeed, God melted hearts, most especially those belonging to Donald Miller and his friends. That night was a major turning point in their lives.

img_1177This kind of humility and authenticity is the perfect antidote to the poison of hypocrisy. It is strikingly unusual. It’s an uncanny abasement of ego and arrogance that defies reason. But this is indeed the kind of selfless love- the only kind of love- that has the power to change hearts, beginning with our own.

It’s my prayer that we who claim the name of Jesus would be a people of his cross-shaped grace, that in the face of criticism, we would offer an attentive ear and an open mind. I want us to be a people who utterly reject pretentiousness and defensiveness to claim an honest heart that remains open and ready to offer God’s love and grace to anyone. I want us to be disciples of Jesus who, instead of merely wearing a cross, choose to bear his cross, thereby being transformed into a new creation of humble servants who love and bless all people with God’s uniquely selfless, self-giving love.

We see that love most perfectly in Jesus Christ. May others perfectly see him in us.

Amen.

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