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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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What if Caitlyn Jenner Came to My Church?

Most all of us did a major double take at the cover of the latest Vanity Fair featuring Bruce Jenner- now asking to be called Caitlyn Jenner. I know I did. For months and months I had seen pictures of a noticeably different and sometimes distressed looking Bruce Jenner. To go from that to a senior citizen-aged bombshell… It leaves room for pause, doesn’t it?

Caitlyn JennerCaitlyn Jenner is the most visible face of a growing movement to accept and include transgender people into the mainstream of society. Multiple states are debating transgender rights laws, both in the workplace and in the community. There is increased awareness towards children who seem to be struggling with gender identity and intense conversations on how to care for them, i.e. do we allow for them to assume their preferred gender identity, including using the bathroom and locker room of their assumed gender? How would we guide their social interactions and confront bullying? And now with the full public emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, these topics will only get more airtime.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to make of transgenderism. As a Christian, my primary lens to look at this or any other reality is Scripture aided by tradition, reason, and experience. But what in the Bible or Christian tradition addresses someone like Caitlyn Jenner?

When I search the Bible, I find occasional passages like Deuteronomy 22:5: “Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God” (CEB). Interestingly enough, this passage is not found among later passages in the same chapter about sexual immortality. It’s included in a set of laws which address doing right to your neighbor and not mixing things of unlike kind, like different kinds of fiber in the same cloth, different kinds of seeds in the same crop, or different animals tethered to the same plow.

Even still, the issue of cross dressing in this passage is contextually unclear. Were folks sometimes wearing other gendered clothes out of convenience or necessity? Was there some native pagan cultic practice requiring cross dressing? Since it’s not included in the list of laws addressing sexual deviances, it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. It stands out on its own.

Other Christian thinkers have turned to Genesis 1:27 in which God creates humanity as male and female. So, they argue, if we’re born a male or a female, that is what we are. To change that would violate what God has lovingly, sovereingly created us to be as a part of God’s very good creation.

In the face of that, we hear the voice of transgender people saying, “Yes, I was born with a female body. Genetically and physiologically I am a female. But my whole inner being tells me I’m a male.” What’s going on, psychologically, physiologically and spiritually?

I honestly have no idea. And there’s precious little in Scripture or Christian tradition that speaks to the experience of someone like Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people like her. If I or anyone else tries to speak definitively to the moral and spiritual implications of transgenderism, we’re speaking too loudly into a dark vacuum of the unknown. And even if I did know for absolute sure what was going on, so what? What does it really change in the grand scheme of things? If I was convinced that transgenderism is sinful, would I then urge a transgender person to change their clothes and get back into the operating room? (I wouldn’t put it past some prominent Christian voices to say that, sadly enough.) Would I condemn someone who is already struggling through the guilt and shame of a mismatched gender identity?

What do we do?

Well, a few years ago I got to find out first hand. One Sunday a couple visited a congregation I was serving. It was two women, and I think most people assumed they were lesbians. But when they asked to speak to me, they revealed that one of them is transgender. She began as a man and over time transitioned to a woman. They were married before the transition happened, and amazingly enough, stayed married.

I heard their story, especially the pained story of the man who transitioned to a woman. I heard her tell me how painful it was growing up and being an adult, looking in the mirror and seeing something she wasn’t. Any chance she got, she would wear women’s clothes just to feel more like herself. Meanwhile she hid in the shame of keeping it all a secret, for fear of misunderstanding and rejection. It was a terrible secret to hide. Then, with the help and support of her wife, the man slowly began to become the woman she knew herself to be. That’s what they told me.

They wanted to tell me their story to help me understand who I was dealing with. I appreciated that. But the larger question on their minds was whether or not the congregation and I would welcome and accept them. As a test run, they wanted to know what I thought of them.

Believe it or not, preachers can find themselves speechless! That was one of those rare occasions. After thinking a moment, still stunned at their revelation, I told them this:

“I really don’t know what to think. There’s virtually nothing in my knowledge of the Bible and theology that speaks to who and where you are. But I do want you to know that I am committing to loving you and including you into my life and into our church for as long as you like. I will be your pastor. You are children of God, too. We’ll learn and grow and figure all this stuff out together, as much as we can. And I will not tolerate anyone pushing you out or in any way making you feel unwelcomed or un-incuded. I got your back.”

We prayed together, and indeed they came around for a while until health and employment issues kept them away and forced them to move. Even then, I hope the lesson God was trying to teach wasn’t lost on us. So far, it’s stuck with me.

Issues of transgender aren’t going away, and the church is once again called to respond to a social reality that ultimately involves people- people made in the image of God and loved by God. Maybe one day we’ll have a better psychological and spiritual understanding of what’s happening within the heart, mind, and soul of a transgender person. Meanwhile, I’m committed to leading a church who will love and as much as possible include people like Caitlyn Jenner and the many who are like her. I don’t know how that will all unfold. I don’t really have to know. I just do my best to love and embrace people as God’s special creation, helping them to find their true identity as disciples of Jesus, called by God to usher in God’s kingdom.

Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

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A Scriptural Way through the LGBT Debate

Joining HandsMy Annual Conference will once again be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBT people into the life of our church, accept and normalize same-sex marriage, and to stop trials for those clergy who violate our Book of Discipline by conducting same-sex marriages. It’s yet another chapter of a debate that’s been raging in my United Methodist Church since the subject of homosexuality first came up in 1972. Yes, we’ve been debating this subject for 42 years, longer than I’ve been alive.

Most everyone would agree that we are locked in an irreconcilable debate between two disparate points of view. To state these views concisely:

  • Our Reconciling (progressive) friends say that fully including LGBT people into the life of our church– into membership, leadership as lay people, marriage, and ordination– is a matter of biblical love and justice. God does not exclude anyone from the gospel and the body of Jesus Christ. God also shows us how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through our LGBT members as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve and lead the church just as powerfully as anyone else.
  • Our Transforming (conservative) friends say that this is all a matter of two things: the authority of Scripture, especially the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality, homosexuality especially; and the preservation of marriage and family, as established by Scripture. The bottom line: the practice of homosexuality is a sin and therefore outside of Christian teaching established by Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.

Here’s the problem with this debate in a nutshell. They are talking past each other. These two “sides” are speaking two different languages- the language of inclusive love vs. the language of biblical authority.

Yet there’s an irony to all of this. Both sides read the same Bible and hold to its authority as the inspired Word of God. And both sides believe in an inclusive, loving church!

Now– let me stop right here because I can sense that both my conservative and progressive colleagues are already chaffing against what I just said. Friends, I’ve made these observations after having spent hours upon hours talking to people on both sides of the LGBT debate. There are some eery similarities between both sides. Here are two striking commonalities:

First, both conservatives and progressives read the same Bible and they take it seriously as the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Or, if we want Wesleyan common ground to stand on, we all can affirm that, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104).  By and large, progressives do not simply toss out passages of Scripture they don’t like. They wrestle with them through the lenses of careful biblical study, criticism and experience- something that everyone from any ideology does. Our ideological differences stem from how we interpret biblical teachings on human sexuality and hermeneutically apply them to our present-day circumstances.

Second, both conservatives and progressives strive for an inclusive, loving church, and in this case with our LGBT neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay people or don’t want them in their churches. We all want and strive for an inclusive church. Where we differ is in the nature of inclusivity. What are we including? Many of our conservative colleagues advocate for and practice radical hospitality to their LGBT neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality. This is not hate or exclusion, at least in their eyes and hearts.

However, I want to say here that this does not at all diminish the real painful histories that LGBT people have experienced being ostracized, hated, and excluded from their families, friends, and church. This still goes on. That said, conservatives (and everyone else) have come a long way in getting rid of bigotry and homophobia. Much more needs to be done. Yet we can confidently say that a large and growing number of my conservative colleagues are weeding out hate and homophobia, extending love and grace to all, while at the same time upholding what they believe the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

To sum up what I’ve just said: by and large, both progressives and conservatives read the same Bible and advocate for a loving, inclusive church. Albeit, there are noisy, visible exceptions who always show up to steal the limelight. Put them aside, and we still find these striking similarities between a vast majority progressives and conservatives.

If it is true– and I firmly believe it is!– that progressives and conservatives on the LGBT issue affirm biblical authority and an inclusive church, then I believe there is a scriptural way forward for all of us. Call it a third way apart from either extreme, and yet it can be a place for all of us to stand together.

That Scriptural way forward is Romans 14:1-15:7. A few months ago I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBT debate. I invite you to give it a read.

Basically, in this passage Paul addresses a dispute between Christians of the ancient Roman church over eating meat that could have been offered to an idol. There were those who believed, based on firm Scriptural premises, that eating this meat was taking part in idolatry and so for the most part, they lived as vegetarians. Others in the community had the faith to believe that idols and idol worship is false anyway, and had no qualms with eating this meat. Then there were those who believed that the Sabbath (and other Jewish holy days) are sacred and must be strictly kept. Meanwhile, others saw everyday as holy.

The Apostle Paul framed this debate by calling it “disputable matters.” In other words, these Roman Christians were not differing over basic Christian dogma or doctrine. None of these things were in question. They were debating disputable matters of ethics, matters that do not inform essential Christian dogma and doctrine.

Paul’s solution was both simple and genius: accept each other at the same table of grace. Don’t force your beliefs onto the other as a stumbling block to them. Respect each other’s convictions as holy convictions, unto the Lord. Give each other space and room to live as they believe the Holy Spirit has led them to live. Strive for the things that build each other up, not tear each other down. Be patient with each other. And above all, be like Jesus, who humbled himself to be crucified for all of us. Welcome each other in the spirit of our crucified and risen Lord.

What would this look like in practice here in 2014, dealing with the LGBT debate? We would accept each other within the same church. We would make room for each other to live and practice ministry as the Holy Spirit has directed us. We would remember that our unity does not need to be based on our agreement over disputable matters like human sexuality; rather, our unity is based on our unified embrace of the dogma and doctrine of our church, our shared Wesleyan heritage as United Methodists.

This is more than merely “agreeing to disagree”. I can agree to disagree with someone without having to maintain a relationship with them. But, if I say that I accept someone whose views on disputable matters are different from mine, then we agree to stay in a covenanted relationship as siblings in Christ within his body. We need not part ways or remain locked in a debate that paralyzes and polarizes our church into winners and losers.

Having said this, let me address some possible objections:

1) “So you’re saying that we should just accept sin and let it remain. I cannot be in a church that passively accepts sin.” The fact is, we the church have always debated what is within and outside of God’s will. Take the issue of remarriage after divorce. In many places the Bible condemns remarriage for divorced persons. And yet, for pastoral reasons, we’ve made room for these persons while allowing our differences over this matter to remain. (I am a divorced and remarried person, ordained as an Elder. No one has ever held that against me, even though one could condemn my remarriage on biblical grounds.) Also, there are a number of other sins we passively overlook– greed, gluttony, gossip, etc. How well are we doing actively pointing out and condemning each and every instance of these sins? The point is this: we are all growing disciples of Christ, always discerning what is sinful and what is not, while growing in holiness. We can still accept each other, even in our differences over what is sinful and what is not.

2) “So you’re saying that we must live in a church which tolerates exclusionary attitudes towards LGBT persons? Where is the justice in that?” I think we all need to drastically lower the volume of our individual convictions on human sexuality. I’ve found that it is very possible to work side-by-side with someone whose convictions are very different from my own on LGBT or any other range of issues. How do we get along? We simply don’t go there. We value the wonderful things we have in common, and we value each other as people. On the matters we dispute, we simply give each other space.

This third way of biblical acceptance will require the progressive and conservative sides of the LGBT debate to change tactics. We can no longer afford to impose our will and views regarding human sexuality on the whole denomination, no matter how biblically correct we feel our view to be. It is a disputable matter.

However, the third way of biblical acceptance will give us all tremendous freedom while keeping our church united around the essential things which already unite us. We can all freely hold and live our convictions on human sexuality while keeping our church from further fractions and schisms.

Then the prayer of Jesus will be more fully realized in our time:

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)

 

 

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50 Years Later: What Martin Luther King’s Dream Means to Me

Martin Luther KingOn the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.

But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I  grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America.  It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.

King’s speech also lifted up  a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.

But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.

We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.

Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of  segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.

Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!

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My Personal Journey Through John’s Gospel- An Online Journal

Since confession is good for the soul, I do have a confession to make. Perhaps the public nature of this confession will work even more medicine within me. I confess that over most of this past year, I have been spiritually very dry and near empty. That’s not an uncommon phenomenon for anyone, but believe it or not, I think running on empty is a more treacherously wide pitfall for spiritual leaders, those who are supposed to be shining examples of gushing fountains of spiritual fervor and depth. After all, don’t we have hours upon hours of idle time to prayer and searching the Scriptures at the center of our vocation? If only…

Coming out of last year’s bad personal depression left me emotionally and physically in a much better place, and I’m greatly thankful for that. But I don’t think I truly recovered the major spiritual losses from that dark time. In other words, God and I are not where we need to be on our personal one-to-one basis. In my ministry and as a husband, father, and friend, I pour out so much to others, but in the end, there is little left over for me– only a few faint embers of God’s love, truth, presence at this altar of my heart. It’s not that I expect a constant raging fire of God to consume me; no one can endure that.

But on most days, one should expect to find a steady, low-burning bed of strangely warm, glowing embers of Christ’s transforming, redemptive presence within the heart, stoked by God’s Word, fanned to flame by the Holy Spirit, fueled by a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and mutual holy conversation. All that is truly enough. I don’t ask for a whole lot in my life. At least I don’t think I do. But to have God this way, this intimately, and to be continually renewed by God’s Spirit to encounter the world, other people around me, and myself with a life uniquely my own and authentically inhabited by Jesus… That would be more than enough.

ImageSo… part of this re-invigoration of my heart will be a reading through the Gospel of John with you, if you care to keep reading and talking with me. Whenever I’ve gone dry, turning to a gospel, getting back in touch with the words, action, and person of Jesus, is my necessary beginning. This will not be in-depth biblical exegesis. I’ve done that already, and that will not do this time. This will not be writing to teach and inspire others. I do that already, and it won’t do this time, either. These posts will not attempt to stir up the pot or to push cutting-edge ideas through the blogosphere. I’ve done that and will continue to, but that will not meet the need this time. In fact, most of the world will probably find these posts exceedingly overly-personal and tame– not the stuff of trending blogs or bloggers at all!

None of that really matters. This is an attempt at an exercise intended to stir up my heart. Anything else is a purely unintended bonus. Even if only one other person reads what I write and offers a bit of reflection in a comment, the purpose has been served. Even if no one does that, I know that God has listened, and that his “comments” will show up somewhere much deeper within me.

Most days, I will center on a full chapter from John’s Gospel. I’ll provide a link to the passage en lieu of taking up precious space with a long Scripture passage. My writing will reflect on this passage’s inroads with me. What does God want me to see? What are the implications on my own life at this moment? How does this passage puzzle or trouble me? How is Jesus encouraging me to become more like him?

More later…

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Becoming a Kidney Donor- One Year Later

Today marks one year from January 26, 2011, the day I donated a kidney to my recipient Ann. I’ve thought for a while of what I would say (if anything!) on this day, and the one sentiment that keeps coming to me is thank God for the gift of life. That is not at all an underhanded self-congratulatory statement– not at all! Stranded together in that word “life” are many integral threads, my left kidney being only one of them. The life I’m celebrating today has every bit to do with the journey we have taken leading up to and proceeding the donation surgery itself.

Dave and Ann Meixner, Chris and Blairlee Owens

In the late Spring of 2010 as I considered being a possible donor for Ann, I didn’t have much of a clue about what would truly lie ahead. We never do. We sign up for things in good faith, and then plod on ahead a day at a time in faith, taking whatever comes to us, come what may, good or bad.

For me, one of the first revelations in the extensive evaluation process was that I desperately needed to lose some weight. I’ve always been one of those lucky people with a slower metabolism that leaves me struggling with my weight. But in order to be a donor, I needed to drop some significant pounds. There was a minimal amount and an ideal maximum. Figuring that the lighter I was, the easier all of this would be on the surgeon and on me, I went for the ideal maximum and dropped about 65 lbs.

But the weight was only part of the picture. Ann’s husband Dave kept telling me, “Well, if for nothing else you’ll be getting yourself one heck of a physical.” He was right. Multiple blood tests, a chest x-ray, a CT scan, an EKG, and a full comprehensive physical later, I had gotten more in touch with the make-up and health of my body than I ever had before.

So, the first strand of God’s gift of life was an even greater appreciation for my health and the imperative to get healthier. This is a gift that keeps on giving, too. Now living with only one kidney, I have every bit of motivation needed to keep my weight and all those other critical levels in check!

Then came the day of surgery itself and the days that followed. Looking back, those were some exciting, beautiful times. Yes, there was a lot pain involved, especially in the first couple of days. And there were those minor details of general anesthesia and major surgery for Ann and me. Thank goodness for pain medication that both alleviated much the pain and a bunch of my memories, too.

But two distinct memories stand out from surgery day and the day following: Waking up I first remember asking about Ann. How was she? Did she do alright? The first thing I remember being told was that she was okay and that her new kidney (my old one!) was already at work producing urine. Wow… Then on the next day after my catheter was removed, they got me up to do some walking and my first walk was down to Ann’s room. Having had my gut cut open and contents removed just the day before, that was a slow, ginger walk. But there was Ann in her room, reporting that already she was beginning to feel better. Her new kidney was hard at work removing the toxins from her body that had debilitated her for years now, and even after her own major surgery, she could feel the difference. Believe me,  that was a powerfully humbling, even flattening thing to behold.

The second strand of life was Ann’s new life. To date, this is the most difficult part of the experience to fathom and even talk about. Most all off us have an inner compulsion to help other people. Most of us would describe ourselves somewhere in the tension of being people who give of themselves while also consciously aware that we could always do better. I donated a kidney to Ann, a member of my church, because it was an opportunity I had to help. Until then, I had never even considered something like this. I didn’t do it to “make a huge sacrifice” or to be a hero. Ann needed a kidney and like many recipients, she was having a hard time finding one. I was healthy and compatible enough with Ann to participate. That’s it. Some gifts we give make a small, meaningful difference. Others make a drastic, meaningful difference. Sometimes we’re tasked to walk an old woman across the street. Sometimes, we’re tasked to save a life. Either way, it’s all about being available to meet the need, however great or small. Along those lines, I hate to think that I donated a kidney, but failed to take ten minutes to listen to someone who just really needed to talk. Both are equally important tasks. Both give life.

Then, the day after coming home from this hospital, I had to go straight back in. As my bowels woke up from the sleep of general anesthesia, I developed a serious case of GI bleeding. From all the blood loss, I passed out in the hospital, fell and hit my head pretty hard, leaving me with a concussion. Two units of blood, a CAT scan, an endoscopy and colonoscopy, and “Meckel” scan later, I came home again. I don’t remember how many nights I was in the hospital. This time, I was recovering from major blood loss and a concussion in addition to surgery.

Ann had her share of complications, too. Her surgery site got infected and took a long time to properly heal. At one point she experienced some very mild rejection, both instances having put her back into the hospital, too.

What can I say?? We were challenging patients!

For me, the extended recovery and ensuing symptoms left me weaker and more physically and psychologically vulnerable than I realized. Getting back into the swing of things took much, much longer than I had anticipated. And for all their excellent care, the doctors’ predictions about healing times and returning to work were far too rosy. But I wasn’t a textbook case, as my donation coordinator reminded me.

I was suffering memory loss and emotional imbalances from the concussion. Frustration with myself led to a lot of outward and inner anger. I still feel both incredibly grateful but a tinge guilty for all Blairlee, my kids, and those close to me had to endure. This person they had always known just wasn’t himself and couldn’t come to grips with that. Their patience, forgiveness, and unconditional love was yet another gracious gift in this experience.

Finally, by late Spring of last year, all this frustration and anger amassed into a serious depression. Combine that with all the physiological changes my body endured during the year along with my own inherited propensity for depression, and I found myself in a new season of illness and healing I never would have predicted. Just when I thought that physically I was getting in better shape, my mind and spirit needed healing.

Once again I found myself at the mercy and in the care of my family, close friends, and the medical community. And once again, I found myself humbled by everyone’s graciousness and unconditional love. And what did I do to deserve all this??

The third stand of life was the care, support, and gracious love of those closest to me. All told, I have not been an easy person to live with and work with this year. (Some might argue that’s always the case. It was just particularly difficult in 2011.) As a husband, a father, a pastor, and a friend, I have been used to taking care of other people. I was the support and the caregiver. I’m used to living out my life to serve and give to others.

But this time, I couldn’t do much of that. In fact, others have had to do for me what I couldn’t do myself. I know that there have been folks who have felt let down or even angry that I fell down on the job. They told me so. Yet in the midst of all that, I learned how dispensable we all are. Our lives are a gift to others, yes, but we are not indispensable fountains of salvation. The world can carry on without us or even in spite of us.

As it does, I learned to allow others to care for me, to forgive me, and to love me even when I wasn’t very lovable. No one does that better than my wife Blairlee. Here I was, giving away one of my organs, only to find myself a needy recipient. That has truly been the most profoundly beautiful, humbling thread of this cord of life I’ve been talking about here.

So, here’s to a journey that began close to to two years ago and continues on today. We are all donors and recipients of life. It’s just a question of graciously making ourselves available to give what we have to those who need it and to gladly, graciously receive the gifts others grant us. All this is God’s gift of life, seen most perfectly in Jesus, incarnated in us whenever we lovingly give and whenever we humbly receive.

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Dear Professor Hawking: You Stick to Science and I’ll Stick to Theology

An open letter to Professor Stephen Hawking in response to his latest comments on the existence of heaven…

Dear. Professor Hawking-

In light of your recent comments that “heaven or afterlife” is  “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark” I would like to a make a wonderful deal with you. This deal will add integrity both of our fields, science and theology. Truth be told, it’s a deal that needed to be struck back in 1632. But I digress…

Here is my deal proposal: You stick to science and I’ll stick to theology. So from now on, if you promise to keep your work focused on science and steer your scientific observations clear from faith and theology, then I promise I’ll keep my work focused on theology and keep my theological observations clear from scientific knowledge, discovery, and inquiry while encouraging others to do the same. (As a token of good faith, Kirk Cameron, this also applies to you.)

Science and theology could carry on side by side quite civilly, don’t you think? After all, theological discussion has no business making or evaluating scientific theories of physics, biology, geology, and cosmology. By the same token, science has no business informing theology, specifically the existence of God, heaven, and philosophical questions of existentialism, i.e. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our role? What happens when we die?

Professor Hawking, I have always had a deep degree of respect for you and your work, and I still do. Your theories in physics and cosmology have been an invaluable gift not just to science but to all of humanity. And your courage to face and live through the painful ordeal of ALS has encouraged and inspired generations of people, especially those with disabilities and their families. All told, your life’s work will reverberate through the annals of scientific research and knowledge for many years to come.

However, just as it surely irks you to no end when religion meddles with science, people of faith become equally irked when science meddles with religious belief. I neither need or desire a scientist to tell me whether or not God or heaven exists. Yet this kind of thing happens when the roles of science and religion get mixed up and cross over into answering questions that neither is properly tasked or equipped to answer.

We each have our separate but complementary fields of inquiry, Professor Hawking.

Science best answers the empirical questions of “what”, “where” and “how.” I look to you and others within the field of science to explain the physical make up and mechanics of the world and the universe. According to all we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, how did our world and the universe come to be as it is? What is it made of? What does it do and how does it do it? According to what we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, what will it become in the future?

Faith and theology, on the other hand, best answer the philosophical questions of “who” and “why” and the non-empirical, metaphysical questions of “what” and “how”.  Who are we? What is the purpose of the world and universe? Of what value are we and to whom? Is there a Reality (God, heaven) beyond the world I can empirically see, touch, hear, and taste? What is that Reality? How and where does that Reality intersect the physical/empirical world? What is the end? What happens when I reach my end?

So as you can see, professor Hawking, we both operate together, side by side, responding to vastly different questions and inquiries which together provide a full-color lens through which we can begin to understand the make-up and nature of us human beings, our world, and the whole cosmos. Since the days of Galileo up until now, we’ve had a hard time learning to mutually respect and accept one another. We’ve made some steps towards peacefully co-existing as separate sides of the same human ontological coin. Obviously we still have a long way to go.

Yet, you as a scientist and I as a pastor can make a deal today. We can sign a pact with which we can encourage others within our respective fields. You and your colleagues can agree to stick to science. And religious teachers, preachers, leaders, and I can agree to stick to faith and theology. I can teach and preach that ” The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1) and you can write and teach the theoretical cosmology and quantum gravitational properties of that same universe. Together, we paint one gloriously beautiful picture on the same canvas. How about if we agree to paint from our own pallets?

Respectfully Yours,

Rev. Christopher D. Owens

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